DETROIT (AP) — NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell couldn't help but notice a great deal of optimism and confidence that the Detroit Lions are moving in the right direction when he visited their training camp.
"You can see it and feel it," Goodell said.
It will be time for Detroit to show it on Sept. 9 at home against the St. Louis Rams when it kicks off a season of rare high hopes.
"We've got some film on St. Louis and we're breaking it down," Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. "There's a new head coach and a new scheme, so we have to be ready to jump on them."
Detroit, meanwhile, has the same head coach, coordinators and general manager for a fourth straight season. That, alone, is stunning.
"There's been continuity in the schemes," coach Jim Schwartz said. "It allows the scouting department to have continuity in the way that we scout, which allows our players to be productive."
The plan, led by general manager Martin Mayhew, has worked.
After being a league laughingstock for years, including being bad enough to become the NFL's first 0-16 team in 2008, the Lions are coming off a breakout season. They went to the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade and gained regard as a team on the rise.
"We're a target now," said center Dominic Raiola, who has a 49-127 record since Detroit drafted him in 2001. "We're not the pushover Lions.
"We've got the best player in the league."
Instead of drawing universal laughter at such a bold statement, some might agree that Calvin Johnson is the NFL's top player.
Johnson joined Jerry Rice and Randy Moss last year as the only players in NFL history with at least 95 receptions, 1,600 yards and 15 touchdowns in a season. He was rewarded with an eight-year deal worth up to $132 million and opportunities to pose for magazine covers.
The All-Pro receiver knows his position group will be in the spotlight on a team that has quarterback Matthew Stafford and a running game that looks shaky at best.
"We feel that if we don't go, the offense doesn't go," Johnson said. "We put it on our shoulders already."
Stafford, staying healthy last season for the first time in three years, threw for 5,000-plus yards with 41 TDs and just 16 interceptions in a one-dimensional offense. That dimension likely will stay in the air because speedy RB Jahvid Best will miss at least the first six weeks of the season, recovering from two concussions he sustained last year, and powerful Mikel Leshoure has a two-game suspension. Barring a trade, lackluster options left are Kevin Smith, Keiland Williams and Stefan Logan.