DNA of the Lions, Part I: Vanquishing 'bad juju'
Dan Campbell is pulling off the impossible. The Detroit Lions, perennial losers, are now NFC contenders. But, why? Go Long spent a week with the team to explore. It's all in the genes. Here's Part I.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — He fidgets in his chair, shakes his head, alternates between opening his eyes as wide as he can and slamming them shut in horror. Tracy Walker would love to forget everything that went down on this same practice field, but he can’t. His introduction to pro football under the previous Detroit Lions head coach — Matt Patricia — was a miserable experience.
Walker is so raw that, at one point, he shouts “Geez! I don’t think I was right to do this interview. I’ve got stories for days.” Before then… diving into another. Reliving it all is clearly therapeutic. Two numbers still ring in his head. Throughout those grueling summer days, Patricia loved sniping, “Eighty-nine and one!” As in, there are 90 players on a training camp roster and, if one does not get in line? If one player suggests starting a meeting at 8:15 a.m. instead of 8? You’d feel the coach’s wrath.
“He’d be like, ‘To hell with you. Go f--k yourself. This is the way we do it. If you don’t like it, hit the f--king road,’” Walker says. “He didn’t shy away from telling you how he felt. If you got 89 that are all on-board and you’ve got one guy who isn’t? Well, ‘F--k this one guy. We’ll bring another guy in.’ But everyone can’t be replaced. That philosophy is why we were put in a lot of bad situations and why we lost a lot of bad games.
“We played a lot of bad ball around here — because of that reason.”
Those who spoke up were ejected from the building. Prime example: Quandre Diggs, a team captain, a rising star. Thirteen months into a three-year, $18.6 million pact, the Lions safety was deemed an insubordinate and shipped to the Seattle Seahawks for pocket change. This was precisely when players were getting fed up. Diggs was a leader with power in the locker room. Diggs expressed concerns. Goodbye.
Darius Slay finished out the season, and he wasn’t far behind. Patricia dumped one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks to Philadelphia for two draft picks.
“All the guys who said something, they got out of here. Literally. That ‘89 and 1’ was a real thing,” Walker says. “This is what I mean by ‘Do what I say or you’re gone. Hit the highway. I will find another place for you. I don’t care how good of a player you are.’”
He doesn’t stop there. Walker believes multiple players — including safety Glover Quin — straight-up retired from the sport because they couldn’t take Patricia.
Fear reigned. Fear created a dehumanizing atmosphere. Lions players felt like cogs in a machine. Methodology that was fully justified in the form of Lombardis at Patricia’s previous stop. The New England Patriots built one of the greatest dynasties in all of sports but again… and again… and again, we see this business model cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Bill Belichick’s lieutenants resemble cheap caricatures. Right down to a sharpened pencil in an ear that cannot be used on a laminated play sheet. Like so many players across the NFL, Walker points out that Belichick’s ways only work for Belichick and that Tom Brady quite obviously had more to do with New England’s success than anyone realized.
When six trophies are not glistening in the trophy case, the barrage of expletives fall flat.
The workplace is beyond toxic.
“I f--king hated coming in,” he says. “Guys used to hate it here.”
All misery has been officially been liquidated from Allen Park. The 2023 Detroit Lions are legitimate contenders and, no, we don’t require immediate psychiatric attention for saying that out loud.