The Detroit Lions have navigated through six months of uncharted territory with unprecedented challenges with no guidance available from game plans and scouting reports.
Unknown elements remain -- as they always do -- as the Lions prepare for Sunday's opening game of the 2020 NFL season against the Chicago Bears at Ford Field.
What is not unknown is the strength of character, commitment and unity that has been revealed among the staff and players in their desire to compete, as well as their stand and statements on social justice and racial inequality.
Ultimately, the success of the team will be played out on the field and determined in the won-loss record, but there is a clear sense that this team is growing together in the same direction as Matt Patricia enters his third season as head coach.
There is a lot to like about the 2020 Lions. They should improve on the records of 6-10 and 3-12-1 of the previous two seasons.
This week's Monday Countdown preview includes a look at quarterback Matthew Stafford returning at full strength to pick up where he left off from playing a half season in 2019, the rebuild of the defense with veterans, a new voice calling defensive signals, home games without fans, takeaways on offense and defense, and a prediction for the NFC North and the Lions.
We start with Matt Patricia and team character:
1. The Lions stepped into the national spotlight when they cancelled a day of training camp practice to discuss and protest social issues and racial injustice after the shooting in Kenosha, Wis., of Jacob Blake by a police officer.
The comments made to the media -- by Duron Harmon, Trey Flowers, Matthew Stafford, Taylor Decker and others -- mirrored comments made earlier and reflected a bond among players that had been built and strengthened through the offseason and into training camp.
"Probably when we started training camp, everybody was a little bit uneasy," Patricia said at the end of camp. "How's it going to go? What's it going to look like?
"You just put your head down, and you grinded through it, and you got into a rhythm and it was pretty comfortable after a while. No different from the spring.
"Based on how this team has just handled everything that 2020 has kind of thrown at them at such a high level, I'm just so appreciative for their maturity and the way that they've been able to come approach everything, every single day.
"I know that we'll do the same in the season too. I know the team is a tight team. They like to compete. They like to work with each other.
"They've got a strong brotherhood, and certainly we've got to build that as we go through the season and go try to win some games.
"But I know they'll handle that adjustment the same as they have all the others."
2. Stafford's stock: I'm a buyer in believing that the way Stafford performed in the first eight games last year was a preview of how he'll play this year.
It was Pro Bowl level: 2,499 yards passing and 19 TDs, with five interceptions and a passer rating of 106.0.
Stafford was spreading the ball around to a talented group of receivers with the deft touch and assurance of a card shark dealing black jack off the bottom of the deck.
Stafford was completely dialed in to offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell's scheme in their first season together.
The stats might not be as high, but the efficiency and game management should be even better -- especially if the running game develops as a reliable, potent option.
"He's super dialed in right now," Bevell said of Stafford near the end of training camp.
"He's just a special talent in terms of throwing the football. It just looks so effortless. He can just flick it, and the ball's flying out of his hand."
3. Defensive calls: It can only help the unit that new defensive coordinator Cory Undlin will call defensive plays.
Any doubt was eliminated when Undlin announced it at his Zoom interview last week and had it confirmed by Patricia.
Undlin is hands-on with a strong voice. He will work from the sideline, rather than the press box.
There's a pretty even split among coordinators in their choice to work from the sideline or the press box. Undlin likes to be up close.
"It's a feel of being on the field," is how Undlin explained his preference to be on the sideline.
4. Vets on defense: The Lions are looking for a payoff from going heavy on defense in free agency.
They were 21st against the run (115.9 yards per game), last against the pass (284.4), tied for last in interceptions (7) and in a three-way tie for next to last with 29 sacks.
Veteran starters were signed at all three levels -- tackles Danny Shelton and Nick Williams, linebacker Jamie Collins Sr., safety Duron Harmon and cornerback Desmond Trufant.
With either first-round pick Jeff Okudah or second-year player Amani Oruwariye at the other cornerback spot, that makes six new starters on defense.
"Sometimes, we say with younger guys, new guys, that the lights are pretty bright," Patricia said. "And sometimes the veterans, they have that savviness where they're just focused on the game.
"That's a big part of it."
5. Lost leads -- team effort: The Lions lost a league-worst six fourth-quarter leads last season, and a lot of the blame falls on the defense.
But the offense isn't exempt. Neither unit played well in the fourth quarter.
In the 12 games the Lions lost, they were outscored by a 117-59 margin in the fourth quarter. And in the season-opening overtime tie against the Cardinals, it was an 18-7 margin in the fourth quarter. (It was 3-3 in overtime).
Bottom line: Both sides have to be better in the fourth quarter.
6. Quiet zone: Last week's practice at Ford Field was not a perfect preview for what to expect. Crowd noise will be piped into stadiums that don't have fans in attendance.
Still, it was almost eerie in projecting that a home game -- or a road game, for that matter -- could be so quiet.
Players have to generate the energy that they'd get from their fans, Trufant said.
"The energy you feel from the fans ... we can create that within the team," Trufant said after the Ford Field practice.
7. Offense, takeaways:
Run depth: It would be great to have Kerryon Johnson and rookie D'Andre Swift available for all 16 games. That's unlikely because of the injury rate for running backs. But if at least one of them is available every week, the offense will have a genuine lead back at the top of the rotation. That was not the case when Johnson was unavailable the last two seasons.
Duos: Frank Ragnow and Decker could be the Lions next long-term center/left tackle duo. Kevin Glover and Lomas Brown were teammates from 1985-1995. Dominic Raiola and Jeff Backus were teammates from 2001-12.
Decker had a two-year jump on Ragnow, but they could spend a decade together.
59: That's the number of catches I'm looking at for second-year tight end T.J. Hockenson because of comparisons to Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez.
Gonzalez had 33 catches in 16 games as a rookie and 59 in 16 games in 1998. Hockenson had 32 catches in 12 games as a 2019 first-round draft pick. From how he looked in training camp, the only thing that could keep him from matching Gonzalez with 59 is the many options available to Stafford.
8. Takeaways, defense:
On the corner: With pressure up front, depth at cornerback should lead the way to double last season's seven interceptions. Trading Darius Slay took away the Lions' most decorated cornerback, but this year's top four -- Justin Coleman, Oruwariye, Okudah and Trufant is better than last year's.
Keeping the cornerbacks healthy would benefit Coleman by allowing him to remain in the slot, where he played his best ball last year.
Late edition: Linebacker Reggie Ragland was signed in the second week of free agency, but he could have a primary role in the rotation. He was a playmaker in training camp.
Quote to note: Players pay attention to what's being said about them and their team. That was evident in this comment in a recent Zoom session by Nick Williams, who spent the last two seasons with the NFC North rival Bears.
"We know the record. We know the pecking order in the NFC North. We're here to change that."
9. Prediction, NFC North:
Minnesota Vikings: They've made the playoffs three times in Mike Zimmer's six seasons as head coach. They were a wild card at 10-6 last year and this year I predict they'll be division winners.
Detroit Lions: Patricia has had two years to build his kind of team and coaching staff. And he has a franchise QB in Stafford to lead the way.
With seven teams from each conference in the playoffs instead of six, the Lions get one of the extra wild cards.
Green Bay Packers: They weren't as good as the 13-3 record that won the North last year. They outscored opponents by 63 points compared to a plus 104 for the Vikings. The Packers miss the playoffs for the third time in four years.
Chicago Bears: They aren't good enough all around to cover up their QB problems.
10. Final Thoughts, Lions: They remind me of the 2011 team, when Stafford came back from an injury and lead them to a 10-6 record and their first playoff berth in a dozen years.
The 2011 team was lead by the offense, and so will this year's until the defense comes around.
In the unprecedented circumstances of the 2020 season, it's an advantage to have one unit that can carry the load.
For the Lions, it's the offense.