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Lions' improved roster has given coaches a chance

The only way to go from a winless season is up and that's exactly where the Detroit Lions have gone.

Just two years after becoming the NFL's first 0-16 team, the Lions have Pro Bowl starters in Calvin Johnson and Ndamukong Suh and a cast of effective role players other teams didn't want.

General manager Martin Mayhew has made a series of savvy decisions after most of Matt Millen's draft picks, signings and trades turned out to be awful — rendering coaches Marty Mornhinweg, Steve Mariucci and Rod Marinelli moot — from 2001 through the first three games of that miserable winless season.

"As hard as it is to go 0-16 in this league — we did it," said center Dominic Raiola, who has endured a 38-121 record as a pro since Millen took him in his first draft. "We just weren't talented enough. What Martin has done is bring in talent.

"Even though we started 0-4 this year, you could see our talent and I could say honestly, 'We're not a bad team anymore.' No one wants to hear you're competitive, but you have to crawl before you can walk. After going 0-16, you just don't start running two years later."

Detroit, which was 2-12 last season, has more than doubled last season's win total with three straight victories in December for the first time since 1995.

The Lions (5-10) can close with a sixth win Sunday at home against Minnesota. If that's crawling before walking, Detroit fans will take it.

Mayhew's first major move a few weeks after being promoted in 2008 was to trade receiver Roy Williams to Dallas for three picks, the first of which brought in tight end Brandon Pettigrew.

The first-time GM, who doesn't do interviews during the season, started the last offseason with subtle moves that have panned out well: He acquired defensive tackle Corey Williams from Cleveland for a fifth-round pick and made a pair of smart signings in landing receiver Nate Burleson and defensive end Kyle Vanden Bosch.

Mayhew's injury-depleted roster led to him adding players such as linebacker Bobby Carpenter, who made a career-high nine tackles in a win against his former team Sunday in Miami, kicker Dave Rayner, who has filled in well for Jason Hanson, and Stefan Logan, who has been among the league's best returners this season after being cut by Pittsburgh.

"Organizations often draft the biggest names and sign the biggest names in free agency to sell tickets and hope it helps on the field," Burleson said. "That isn't happening here anymore.

"This is one of the only teams that you can get picked up off the street like Carpenter and Logan and make plays because the front office and coaches know what they're doing."

Millen's tenure included first-round busts such as Joey Harrington and Charles Rogers, and he failed to find many productive players in later rounds, free agency or via trades.

Mayhew has started to clean up the mess he inherited and Detroit may be ready to make a leap toward playoff contention next year for the first time since 2000 if quarterback Matthew Stafford can finally stay healthy. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 draft played in 10 games as a rookie and just three this season because of injuries.

Still, Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton have each won two games in replacing Stafford, becoming the first pair of backup QBs to win multiple games for an NFL team since 2007, according to STATS LLC.

"The depth of the team is part of the whole equation," coach Jim Schwartz said. "You want to have front-line starters at every position. Sometimes it's a little easier said than done."

The Lions and their fans know that all too well.