Linehan, the former head coach of the St. Louis Rams, addressed the quarterback competition between top draft pick Matthew Stafford and veteran Daunte Culpepper, had very high praise for rookie tight end Brandon Pettigrew and called himself a longtime admirer of new Lions head coach Jim Schwartz. He also spoke of the challenge of coming in as part of a new coaching staff on a team that only has to win one game to call 2009 an improvement over 2008.
"It's a unique challenge, there's no doubt about that," Linehan said. "But everything you go through in coaching is a challenge. We have a good, devoted group of coaches here, and it's not about what happened last year or what's happened in the past. We're looking at an exciting young group of players and looking at what we and they can accomplish together."
The question everybody has, of course, is about the starting quarterback job. There is Stafford, who was the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft and certainly represents the future of the organization. And there is Culpepper, the veteran who threw for 4,717 yards and 39 touchdowns for the Vikings in 2004 when Linehan was that team's offensive coordinator. Linehan was dropping no hints about which one was ahead (as if that matters anyway on June 25), calling the situation a "win-win situation" for the organization.
Linehan said it was his opinion that a healthy and motivated Culpepper could be the Lions' starter all season, not just a placeholder for Stafford. But he also had high praise for the rookie.
"Matt's a young guy with all the talent in the world, and he could certainly show enough that he could be our quarterback," Linehan said. "But we're not going to do that until we believe he's ready for it, whenever that is. There's no formula for figuring that out. Last year there were a couple of young quarterbacks who played and had very successful seasons in the NFL. So there's no reason we would hesitate to do that if we believed he was ready. But on the other hand, we have a veteran here on the last year of his contract who has something to prove. So I think it's a win-win situation."
The Lions' offensive line was a huge problem area in 2008, which leads to the question of whether it makes sense to start a rookie quarterback if you worry that he's going to spend the season on his back. But while Linehan acknowledged that there are "a million different factors" that will go into the quarterback decision, he said the decision on Stafford would depend on when the Lions believe he's ready to handle the job.
"Questions like that about the offensive line and what happened before this coaching staff was here, those are going to be there," Linehan said. "But it's not my job to do anything based on what happened last year. It's my job to make sure the part of this football team that I'm charged with is as good as it can be, and that includes the offensive line and everything else on that side of the ball."
Linehan has been a different kind of offensive coach at different stops in his career. Those Culpepper-Randy Moss Vikings teams were obviously very pass-heavy, as were the Marc Bulger-led Rams in 2006 when Linehan debuted as a head coach. But that Rams team also saw Stephen Jackson carry the ball 346 times for 1,528 yards. And when he was the Dolphins' offensive coordinator in 2005, running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams combined for 1,650 rushing yards. So running back Kevin Smith shouldn't expect to be ignored.
"I think you have to be able to run the football," Linehan said. "We're going to be capable of doing a variety of things, I believe, but there's no doubt in this league that to be successful you have to be able to run the football, especially late in games and as it gets late in the season as well."
That said, there is also Calvin Johnson, one of the most spectacular receivers in the game. And there is Pettigrew, the former Oklahoma State tight end who was the Lions' second first-round pick in April. Linehan spoke highly of Pettigrew as both a receiver and a blocker, and indicated that he'll be a big part of what the Lions do on offense.
"When you have a guy who can block for your running back on one play, run downfield and catch the ball on the next, and then hang back on the next one and block a defensive lineman who's trying to get to your quarterback on the one after that?" Linehan said. "Those kinds of players don't come around very often. He's got that kind of ability."
In all, Linehan is displaying the optimism you expect to find at pretty much every team's minicamp. And all the newness has to help. He said he has been a fan of Schwartz's for a long time, in large part because of the role Schwartz played as defensive coordinator for the Tennessee Titans for the past eight years.
"The way that Tennessee defense always performed -- I don't want to say they overachieved or to downgrade any of the players he worked with there, but you would look and sometimes you'd be amazed," Linehan said. "You'd look at a matchup where you wouldn't think they'd be in it, and they'd be beating teams 14-13, and you'd scratch your head -- 'How are they doing that?' And I think that says a lot about the people there and the continuity of the coaching there, and he was a huge part of that, and I he's going to bring that here with him."
In the end, of course, the Lions can't possibly be worse than they were last year. But Linehan insists that they're not setting the bar low.
"I think everybody knows that in this league, the talent level is so close across the board that a team can go from the bottom to a contender in a hurry," Linehan said. "We're looking at getting better and just being the best possible team we can be, and seeing where that takes us. We're not thinking, 'Just win a game' or anything like that. We have an exciting, talented group here, and we feel good about the personnel we have."