“The Lions’ status as the first team to go winless throughout a 16-game season doesn’t seem to be as dissuasive as you might think. In fact, it might even be a recruiting tool for some players.”

The Pro Bowl linebacker arrived in town, after some stellar years elsewhere, and even though he was on the wrong side of 30 and coming off an off-year, he spoke bravely of recapturing his glory days. And he declared himself thrilled with his new team and of the coaching staff. The Lions, in turn, had finally, they thought, acquired the difference-making, playmaking linebacker they had long sought.

Then Pat Swilling crossed the line.

He asked to wear No. 56.

It was 1993, and the Lions had pulled off a draft day trade, acquiring Swilling from the New Orleans Saints. Swilling was to be the energetic, two-for-one LB that coach Wayne Fontes craved — a guy who could rush the passer and contain the run. But Swilling wore 56 in his Saints days, and thought it would be swell if he could wear it in Detroit, too.

Someone with the Lions, I hope, cleared their throat and said, “Um, Pat, 56 was worn by Joe Schmidt. The Hall of Famer, Joe Schmidt.”

Swilling wanted 56 anyway. And here’s the joke: the Lions let him have it.

Now, the punch line: Swilling soiled the number, playing two uninspired seasons in Detroit. He made the Pro Bowl in ’93, but it was one of those “reputation” things. He wasn’t two-thirds the player in Detroit as he had been in New Orleans.

No. 56 went back into storage — and I hope it never again sees the light of day.

The Lions introduced Julian Peterson to the media folks the other day, and I hope he’s not the modern day version of Swilling.

Peterson will be 31 soon, and he’s coming off an “uh-oh” off-season in 2008. But prior to that, Peterson was a beast for the 49ers and the Seahawks. The Lions acquired him earlier in the week for DT Cory Redding and a fifth-round draft choice.

Peterson: 2008 a fluke, or the start of a trend?

Lions coach Jim Schwartz sees Peterson as still being capable of being the playmaking, two-for-one linebacker that he was through 2007. Peterson has made five Pro Bowls — or five more than the Lions’ current LB corps has made, combined.

Peterson, for his part, is tickled at the prospects of coming to the 0-16 Lions. He went to Michigan State, and so he has local ties. And he loves what he sees from Schwartz and his staff. You can read what he had to say about becoming a Lion HERE. It doesn’t sound like bull, but then again, who knows?

But one thing is becoming clearer to me as the off-season drones on.

The Lions’ status as the first team to go winless throughout a 16-game season doesn’t seem to be as dissuasive as you might think. In fact, it might even be a recruiting tool for some players.

Players like Peterson, and others who the Lions have acquired via free agency and trade, and potential No. 1 draft picks like Matthew Stafford and Aaron Curry, have all sung the same tune. They all, they say, would love to be part of a rebirth of pro football in Detroit. The allure of contributing to the rise from the ashes is apparently pretty strong.

On second blush, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Professional athletes — the ones worth their salt, anyway — love challenges. Sometimes the best motivator is to tell a player, or a group of the right kind of players, that they can’t do something.

Having said that, there’s no question that the Lions probably lost out on landing some of the bigger name free agents. Again, not surprising. The upper-tier guys usually have either won or have lost a lot, so the prospect of going to a winless team doesn’t appeal to them, no matter how optimistic or how many changes that winless team can boast.

But there are plenty of good, solid NFL players out there who, if put into the right system, can come together and be the missing pieces that can bring a team from 0-16 to near .500 in Year One, then into the playoffs in Year Two. The Lions, it says here, have added several of those types since the curtain fell on 2008.

Julian Peterson says he wants to prove to everyone, and to himself, that his subpar 2008 season was a mirage and not the beginning of the end. He says he’s happy and that the trade to Detroit was a “good fit.” He likes the new coaching staff. He likes the area.

And he wears No. 59, not 56. So that’s something, right there.