Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Hopes on rise for improved Lions
TAMPA - The last time Motown staged a revival this dynamic, Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson were the headliners. As the Lions head into Raymond James Stadium for today's season opener against the Bucs, the city of Detroit has embraced its NFL franchise with a fervor not seen for decades. Only three years removed from the first 0-16 season in league history, the Lions are suddenly a hot ticket. That's what a season-closing four-game winning streak will do, along with some aggressive marketing and stars on both sides of the ball."In a lot of ways, the atmosphere in town is on the uptrend,'' said third-year coach Jim Schwartz. "The Tigers just took an 8-1/2 game lead and the Big Three (automakers) are making money again. Detroit's a city on the rebound and I think the Lions are a team that's rebounded.'' Based on December's surge, expectations are raised in Detroit, where the Lions needed only 45 minutes to sell out an Oct. 10 Monday Night Football matchup against Chicago when individual game tickets went on sale last month. "We're close on several other games,'' club president Tom Lewand told Crain's Detroit Business website. "We've got to get to a point that the fact our game wasn't blacked out is no longer a newsworthy event.'' No such luck in Tampa, where today's matchup marks the 13th consecutive blackout for the Bucs, including preseason games. When Schwartz succeeded former Bucs assistant Rod Marinelli in 2009, the Lions were at their nadir as a franchise that dated back to 1930. Detroit hadn't posted a winning record since 2000 and a streak of 50 consecutive sellouts at Ford Field had just ended. With former Bucs defensive back Martin Mayhew running football operations, the Lions began their journey toward respectability by selecting quarterback Matt Stafford with the first pick in the '09 draft. After going 2-14, they added defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh last year and improved to 6-10, ending an NFL-record 26-game road losing streak along the way by handing Tampa Bay a crushing overtime setback. Finally healthy, Stafford was sensational in the preseason while Calvin Johnson has few peers as a wide receiver. Suh is so nasty and disruptive, some opponents are accusing him of being a dirty player. That's a sure sign of respect. On and off the field, people are talking about a franchise that recently served as the poster child for NFL futility. "We are pleased with where we are in all of our key business metrics,'' Lewand said. "We're seeing double-digit growth in almost every area to date. Winning – that's the ultimate instrument to strengthen your brand.'' With today's game blacked out locally, most Tampa Bay fans won't be able to watch the Buccaneer brand in an intriguing duel between two promising young clubs. Despite today's tributes to the tragedy of 9/11 and the passing of Lee Roy Selmon, the Bucs will likely be greeted by more than 10,000 empty seats. You want grim reality? The Bay area is now the blackout capital of the National Football League, and while our local economy remains harsh, most Motown residents certainly haven't thrived in the past five years. At the start of 2011, metro Detroit's unemployment rate was 11.3 percent. Census data released last March indicated Detroit's population shrunk by nearly 250,000 people in the past decade. As Raheem Morris likes to remind us, statistics are for losers. "I think the Lions are going to win nine or 10 games,'' says singer Kid Rock, who grew up in Romeo, Mich., 40 miles north of Ford Field. "They really have turned it around. It's been a long time coming here in Detroit.''