DNA of the Lions, Part II: The obsessed ones
This is no accident. Dan Campbell knows exactly what type of player he's looking for to deliver a title. The type, like Kalif Raymond, who obliterate personal demons. (Cam Sutton has a message, too.)
Miss Part I? Catch up right here.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — One after another, he snatches footballs off the JUGS machine. Kalif Raymond is positioned at the far, far, far end of the field, helmet on, hardly visible at 5 foot 8, 185 pounds.
He eventually saunters on back, heads into meetings, redirects to a body shop to get his vehicle worked on, and as the final stream of trucks and SUVS leave the parking lot around 6:15 p.m. this June day, Raymond’s still here. Still at Lions HQ. In a Carhartt shirt, visibly tired, he knows his day isn’t done yet. After this conversation, the plan is to rep out hamstring curls on the Nordic machine. If anyone’s trying to reach him today… tomorrow… a year from now… yeah. Good luck.
Raymond, labeling himself “the worst texter,” cites the 932 unread messages on his phone. He hasn’t posted anything to his Instagram in four years. His Twitter account’s all but dead, collecting dust since college.
There’s little time for doom-scrolling when you’re someone who enjoys training five to six times per day.
He cannot stop. It’s a sickness.
If Dan Campbell himself could create an ideal competitor in a lab, it’s the man he doesn’t only call “Leaf,” but also the team’s “Iron Man.” He’s not Tyreek Hill turning the Miami Dolphins into one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses, nor A.J. Brown rocketing Jalen Hurts to superstar status. Again, star power is not what’s powering the hype train in Detroit. But Raymond’s football DNA explains the Lions’ DNA and why these Lions are prepared to fight anyone in 2023. Football threatened to chew and spit him out from high school… to college… to the pros.
Right on cue, the Lions signed Raymond to a contract extension through 2025 on Friday.
The sight of this receiver on this practice field is a window into why the Detroit Lions are for real.
So is Cameron Sutton, the veteran addition determined to fix a broken secondary. (A man who wants to play until he can’t walk.)
So is Jahmyr Gibbs, the 12th overall pick who could make this the NFC’s most dynamic offense. (You’ll see him lined up everywhere.)
Because, in truth, it’s never about creating anyone in a lab.
Campbell knows exactly what he’s looking for.
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Start down in Norcross, Ga., When peers hit puberty, Raymond stopped growing. At all of 5-2, 103 pounds — into high school — Raymond was the runt of his class. He inherited abnormally long arms, but little else physically from his 6-foot-3 father. As a result, coaches saw zero use for this new kid transferring in. The first few practices, Raymond stood on the sideline.
Eventually, he did play. Raymond was even lighting it up as a senior, allowing himself to dream of a college scholarship four games in, before… breaking his ankle. It was a grisly scene. His ankle bent at a 90-degree angle to the right. Trainers came over, clicked a bone back into place and Raymond begged them to tape it up. To let him play because he had exactly zero offers.
Of course, that was an impossibility. With his ankle in a boot, Raymond sat and sobbed. And assumed his football career was over.
It was right then he remembers looking up into the stands and seeing his best friend’s father. “You’re going to be alright!” Lawrence Nelson shouted. “Don’t worry about it!” As Greater Atlanta Christian School’s season pressed on, Nelson challenged Raymond. Told him that if he sincerely wanted to play college football, there still was a way. He sat the diminutive wide receiver down with a laptop, pulled up ESPN.com and pointed to the endless columns of DI, DI-AA, DII and DIII schools. Nelson told him that if he visited the website for each school, he’d find a staff directory that’d include email addresses for the football coaches.
There’s an offer out there, he said. It was on Kalif to find it.
So to each school, in each conference, in each division, Raymond copied and pasted an email with his film attached.
In all, Raymond estimates he sent out 800 emails and heard back from less than 10. Even some of those 10 responses were automated. The only schools mildly interested in offering him a scholarship — Lehigh and Holy Cross — were worried about that shattered ankle. No problem. Raymond rehabbed in time to run track that spring. He still could not change direction, but looked just fine in a straight line. As for his smurf stature? He got creative. On his visit to the Holy Cross campus, Raymond wore three pairs of socks, large boots, a hoodie, his letterman jacket and baggy pants in an attempt to appear much taller than he actually was.
On this eve of Signing Day, in a room full of recruits, Raymond was the last kid to get called into the head coach’s office and Tom Gilmore extended an offer.
To this day, Raymond calls Nelson’s nudge the greatest gift he’s ever received because his buddy’s father didn’t send those emails for him, no. He supplied the playbook. He said, bluntly, “It’s on you.”
If Kalif Raymond wanted anything in life, he could take it.
“It changed something in my mind when he did that,” Raymond says. “Because that point to now, it inspired me to be proactive in the things that I want and desire. … He told me, ‘It’s up to you on how you want to act when that adversity hits.’ That’s been my mentality since that moment.
“Nobody’s going to do it for you. You’ve got to want to do it yourself.”
More storms threatened to wash him away. At Holy Cross, Raymond says he endured three or four surgeries his senior year alone — all the result of over-training. (“I wanted it so bad. I couldn’t stop.”) The frigid winters were no fun for a Georgia kid, but he grew to love this small Jesuit school in Worcester, Mass., because Gilmore knew how to turn boys into men. Right down to his rule that if you didn’t have an internship during the summer, you needed to be on campus. Which meant getting a job to feed yourself. Looking back, Raymond knows Holy Cross’ rigorous academics also prepared him for the NFL’s film demands.
Of course, there was no way to prepare himself for something else in the NFL.
Mental warfare that should’ve KO’d him for good.
Raymond did enough his final collegiate season (978 receiving yards, nine touchdowns) to creep onto the Denver Broncos’ practice squad as an undrafted rookie the 2016 season. He was waived on Sept. 2, 2017, claimed by the New York Jets the next day and — after never muffing a single punt at any level — Raymond dropped one in practice ahead of the Jets’ season opener against the Buffalo Bills. The muff changed him. The muff served as a sucker punch to all of the confidence he had built up. From Georgia to Holy Cross to Denver, Raymond was forever comfortable because he knew that his team knew he could ball. On fair catches, he wouldn’t even look at the ball dropping into his hands. On returns, he didn’t even need to give those gunners a passing glance.
Everything was natural.
That comfort — abruptly — vanished.
He’d soon recognize this as a “false sense of comfortability” and Raymond says that every player who signs with a new team is liable to lose this comfort. Doesn’t matter if you’re a fringe player cycling between practice squads or a 10-year vet with multiple Pro Bowls. Because now? You’re the new guy. Coaches don’t have that built-in trust. You live in fear of mistakes compounding.
“You have that feeling of, ‘I’ve got to prove myself! Prove myself! Prove myself!’” Raymond says. “Which is partially true. But the issue is, you put so much pressure on yourself that you don’t have any patience with yourself. So any bad plays that happen, you’re trying to lean on something and that security blanket isn’t there. You want to say, ‘Oh, they know I can make this play.’ But that’s your first dropped pass with them. They haven’t seen the other thousand that you caught. So you’re thinking, ‘Maybe they don’t think I’m good’ or ‘Maybe I’m not that good.’ It becomes a mental snowball.”
Everything was vividly different. His number (84), his locker room, how the 10 players in front of him blocked. The comfort of Denver was gone.
One innocent mistake planted a droplet of stress inside Raymond’s mind and, that Sunday, Raymond muffed two punts in a 21-12 loss to the Bills. Not only was his confidence now gone. Raymond became suffocated by the reality that one more muff would for certain get him released. His anxiety was “crazy.” That Tuesday night, Raymond couldn’t sleep because he knew he’d be fielding punts at the next day’s practice. Severe night sweats kept him up most of the night. Raymond survived practice but, of course, another game loomed.
This one was in Oakland.
Fear of failure was officially overpowering the possibility of success.
“You teeter,” says Raymond, his flat hand tipping to and fro. “To the point of, ‘I’d rather not go out there than have the fear of failing again.’ It drives you to a place where it feels like your back is against the wall. Except there’s no wall. It’s a cliff.”
The punt rifled off the foot of Raiders punter Marquette King with 2 minutes left in the half. At his own 15-yard line, Raymond waved for a fair catch and the ball ricocheted off both of his hands. As the Raiders recovered, Raymond cowered into the fetal position. He was dejected. Empty. Inconsolable on the sideline moments later. Pissed at himself, Raymond tried leaning into anger. Worse? He felt all alone. He didn’t know these coaches, these players and had zero family members in the stadium.
“Not only do I know nobody here,” Raymond says, “but at this point I don’t even know myself.”
He pauses. His mind wanders back.
“It was tough. It was tough.”
Two days after this humiliating 45-20 loss, Raymond was cut loose. He loitered around on the New York Giants’ practice squad and returned 11 punts with two more fumbles in the games. There isn’t a ripe market for undrafted 5-foot-8 wide receivers out of Holy Cross with ball-security issues. His football career, for all intents and purposes, should’ve died right in the Black Hole.
Only, it did not.
How Raymond attacked that 2018 offseason is how Dan Campbell wants all of his players thinking whenever their head is tucked into their chest. At the ledge of a free-fall into a new profession, Raymond realized he had zero “mental foundation” to lean on — only that anger — because he wasn’t doing any mental work on his own. Everything, always, was physical. After all, he never struggled with the literal act of catching a punt.
He thought back to advice from former Bronco teammate Bennie Fowler. The wideout who constantly preached about the science of mindfulness. Finally, Raymond got into the app, Headspace, and began meditating. Float sessions were a game-changer. This total “sensory deprivation” clears his mind. Raymond can’t see anything because the room is pitch back. He cannot hear anything because he’s on his back in water with his ears covered. And he cannot feel anything because the water’s set at the same temperature as his body.
The first time he floated, that crucial ’18 offseason, Raymond’s mind raced “like a jet engine” for first 75 minutes, before reaching a total state of peace the final 15 minutes.
“To put that in perspective,” Raymond says, “imagine how much your mind is racing throughout the day. Those 15 minutes of peace, all your worries? You’re like, ‘This isn’t as important. Maybe I should let this go.’ Let’s say you’re on the Internet and you’ve got 30 tabs open. There’s so much to look at, right? It’s like closing tabs to eventually have one or maybe two tabs where you can just focus. All those other tabs, you don’t even need. They’re from last week. It’s stuff going on in your subconscious. You’re closing tabs.”
That summer, Raymond knew he could disappear… or fight. The choice was easy. As far back as he could remember, he had a true passion for this sport. After dropping one pass as a youngster in park ball, knowing Dad was in the stands, he wailed so uncontrollably that he needed to be taken off the field. There’s certainly fight baked into his DNA, too. His mother’s family emigrated from China to Vietnam in World War II and then Vietnam to the United States during the Vietnam War. Mom was 3 years old then and nearly died on the boat ride over with her uncles. Kalif hasn’t asked many questions on the subject because he knows it’d stir trauma.
From what he heard, his family couldn’t dock the boat to land because they would’ve been thrown right back on it. So they got as close as they could, and swam to shore.
No, he could not give up.
That summer, he trained six times per day. He’d start with meditation, then a morning mile… a 9 a.m. workout… a 12 to 2 workout… JUGS from 3 to 4… jiu jitsu 5 to 6 and capped it all off with another workout from 9 to 11 at night. His aim was to field so many punts at the JUGS machine that muscle memory would overpower any anxiety that returned. Thousands upon thousands of reps, he knew, would serve as “ammo in my quiver.” Even if it came with the downside of, you know, ugly welts all over his chest.
His moment of reckoning soon arrived that ensuing preseason as a member of the Giants. Another punt return.
The team that cut him loose, the Jets, booted it to the same side he fumbled vs. Oakland. As he ran over to field the punt, Raymond could feel anxiety bubbling to the surface. Anxiety that could only travel so far. He had caught so many punts in training that his body essentially told his nerves, “Nah, not today,” and Raymond smoothly fields the punt to return it 35 yards. He still feels anxiousness. Nerves are inescapable. Each time, however, Raymond blasts through the sensation. And if he does drop a pass? Fumble? There’s no need to panic with this newfound mental foundation.
He's never alone, either. After that Raiders game, he vowed to make sure he always had a family member in the stands. Whatever the cost.
Raymond toggled between the Giants, Titans, Giants, Titans again, becoming everything Campbell could’ve wanted upon taking over the Lions in 2021.
This was one of this regime’s first acquisitions.
He’s also no inspirational mascot gathering teammates ‘round for story time. He can play. Raymond has blossomed into a chains-mover for quarterback Jared Goff, catching 73.4 percent of the balls thrown his way in 2022. The last two seasons, Raymond has 1,192 receiving yards on 95 receptions with four scores. As the primary punt returner, he’s averaging 12.1 yards per return. His electric 47-yard touchdown was the difference in a win over those Jets.
After crossing the goal line, Raymond collapsed back into that fetal position. But only briefly.
A split-second later, he turned onto his back and teammates piled on.
He never forgets the road here. When the Lions played the Jacksonville Jaguars, the visitors’ assistant special teams coach introduced himself. Luke Thompson explained that he coached at Georgetown University a decade prior. He was one of those 800 email recipients.
“If I put in everything I have,” Raymond says, “I can look at myself in the mirror if it doesn’t work out. That gives me peace.”
A man with no business playing a down of college ball is now entering Year 8 in the NFL. This is the spirit Campbell and GM Brad Holmes covet in free agency, the draft. Three offseasons of hunting have now made the Lions one of the NFC’s most dangerous teams. This is a group of players who’ll actively choose to dig deep on fourth down, in the fourth quarter, when their tank’s down to “E.” Campbell doesn’t need to load F-bombs into the muzzleloader like Matt Patricia. No metric exists for such character but, as Jaguars OC Press Taylor perfectly put, character is a competitive advantage. Anybody can sound like Johnny Manziel at the NFL Combine podium. The party boy eloquently sold himself as a new man ready to work in the NFL. He lied.
The Lions keep finding the opposite, the Raymonds.
At 4-19-1, this entire franchise’s back was against the same cliff as his. Everyone could’ve been fired — players, coaches, beer vendors. Instead, the Lions started finished games and it was no accident.
“That’s credit to the guys upstairs,” says defensive end Romeo Okwara, who worked his way back from a torn Achilles last season. “Some guys will fold. Some will go get it. We’ve got a team full of guys who just want to go get it and make plays.”
On defense, there’s a guy like Alex Anzalone who should probably assume his shoulders are cursed by now. The linebacker dislocated his right shoulder three times in a five-season span from college to the pros. As a Saint in ’19, he needed surgery on his left shoulder. Then, as a Lion in ’21, he hurt the right shoulder again. Ironically enough, Anzalone comes from a family of doctors. He loves giving hell to his Dad, a pediatrician, for letting him play tackle football in second grade. At some point in the pros, Anzalone essentially said “Screw it” and decided to cut loose with total abandon.
The payoff finally came last season. Anzalone was the player keeping a bad defense afloat with a team-high 125 tackles that earned him a three-year, $18.3 million contract extension.
Going counter-culture was essential. After the previous regime’s disastrous decision to draft cornerback Jeff Okudah instead of Oregon’s Justin Herbert, Holmes and Campbell have not obsessed over the quarterback position or any impulsive need to lure star power for the sake of star power. (Hello again, Jets.) Rather, they obsess over finding more players who are willing to pen those 800 emails, who are taking up meditation to slay a personal demon.
Operate this way and, naturally, you’ll land stars.
Because, holy, do not tell Raymond that he’s the last player to leave the field. Maybe he was this particular day, but 99.9 percent of the time it’s the team’s No. 1 option. It’s Amon-Ra St. Brown, the hardest-working player he’s ever seen. Without fail, St. Brown ends every practice with 202 catches at the JUGS machine. Add it up and that’s 606 per week. Part of Raymond hates even vocalizing this out loud at the risk of a jinx, but he’s “outrageously confident” every time the ball’s thrown to St. Brown solely because of his work ethic. If anyone wants to know how the Lions are built, Raymond says to no look further than the team’s best receiver. During lifts, St. Brown is the one putting up the most weight. When everyone’s finished, he’s the one sneaking in an ab workout.
“The dude is a monster off the field,” Raymond says, “before he even steps on the field.”
Nobody has an excuse to tap out when the most talented player on the entire team is living so relentlessly. OK, OK. Raymond’s comatose IG account did briefly come alive this offseason on a technicality. He got married in July. His wife posted photos from Renault Winery in Egg Harbor, N.J. and tagged Kalif’s handle. Yes, he’s now a married man who’ll always have a loved one in the stadium. No, those 16,600+ followers should not expect much of a social-media presence from Raymond. There’s a good chance he has even surpassed 1,000 unread texts since our chat.
Time’s of the essence. He doesn’t want so much blood, sweat and tears shed in vain.
At the conclusion of each day, Raymond says he stares into the mirror to ask, Did I do everything in my power to get better today? The answer must be an unequivocal “yes” every time. He still doesn’t know how to relax.
He’s the same psycho working out nonstop.
“Because,” he adds, “I want it so bad right now.”
It’s hard to blame him. The Lions have a realistic chance to reach a championship for the first time since the Dwight Eisenhower presidency. They’ve won one playoff game since then.
Everyone grasps the stakes.
Nobody more than the coach who’s always willing to examine his own flaws under a microscope and then share his findings with everyone.
Once the euphoria of ending the Green Bay Packers’ season subsided, Dan Campbell understood that to realistically engage in title talk he needed to do exactly what Kalif Raymond did.
Look in the mirror.
Empowering players doesn’t mean blindly trotting the same players out 70+ a game.
The defense was an atrocity the first half of last season. By the first week of November, TruMedia had examined 734 single-season performances, back to 2000, and the Lions’ defense ranked 734th of 734 teams. The 2008 team that finished 0-16 was 733rd. The 2020 defense ranked 732nd. It got better down the stretch, but Campbell didn’t kid himself. Detroit needed to completely reset the secondary. Four of the five starting defensive backs this season will be new.
The offense was surgical. The Lions finished fourth in yards, fifth in points and, for our resident nerds, fifth in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA and third in TruMedia's EPA per play. Jamaal Williams led the league in rushing touchdowns (17) and eclipsed 1,000 yards. As Go Long readers learned, he also brings a high-voltage personality to the locker room. Yet, in an area where the Lions were very good, they are now challenging themselves to be elite. Out is Williams; in is David Montgomery. Out is D’Andre Swift; in is Jahmyr Gibbs.
This is how teams leap into contention — by being bold.
The player they chased most fervently in free agency? Cameron Sutton, a cornerback who has spent the entirety of his six-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Merely two hours into the negotiating window, Sutton was a Lion at the price of $33 million over three years. ($22M guaranteed). News that instantly brought tears of joy to Sutton’s eyes, as NBC’s Peter King detailed. Years past, such hot commodities are not rushing into such a marriage. The reputation of this coach, however, is quite different than the last.
Sutton didn’t want to wait around in free agency. He wanted to go where he was wanted, where he’d be able to pass knowledge down to “generations” of players.
With a scruffy beard, a thick mustache and No. 1 on his chest, Sutton sounds like Campbell’s kin.
“I don’t approach this as work. I love what I do,” Sutton says. “I want to play this game until damn near I can’t even walk anymore.
“Obviously my services were needed.”
On the field, Sutton promises a pack of “feisty, angry men” who’ll obliterate anyone wearing a different colored jersey. It’s an edge he carries throughout his entire life. Not just football.
Nobody expects another 1-7 hole around here. Anzalone likens the first two months of last season to failing exams early on in a semester. There’s no coming back — “you’re screwed.” Win just one of those games, Detroit would’ve reached the playoffs and, he wonders aloud, who knows? “Maybe,” Anzalone posits, “that was your opportunity to get to the Super Bowl.” Adversity struck and those Lions waited too long to respond.
A presence like Sutton — a starter straight from a franchise that hasn’t had a losing season in 19 years — will help whenever these Lions hit a brick wall.
“You’re going to fail. You’re going to lose,” Sutton says. “What you do from that is what defines you. That shows your character. That shows how much it means to you. … The offense may be turning the ball over. How we approach the field to get the ball back for our offense — that type of energy is infectious. The same if we make a mistake, the offense can pick you up and say, ‘We’ve got your back!’ It’s all about having that collective momentum in all three phases: offense, defense and special teams. It’s infectious. Guys are flying around. Guys are making plays. Guys are in their right spots doing their jobs.
“I tell guys the same thing: Keep putting yourself in the right positions and good things will happen to you.”
Sutton will be vocal. Assertive. Echoing Tracy Walker, he doesn’t want anyone to feel “sheltered” and mute. That’s why hanging out at each others’ houses and going to dinner off the field has been so beneficial. Across position groups, too. Sutton believes it’s crucial for all 11 men on the field to operate on a string. To him, such bonds transfer to the X’s and O’s in the run and pass game.
When football’s broken down to its essence, he explains, there’s sacrifice. A defensive player may be forced to eat up two gaps to allow a teammate to make the play. An act that requires selflessness.
If a player fails to complete his specific task? It won’t be tolerated. That player will be addressed. The new guy straight from Mike Tomlin’s School of Defense vows to set that standard.
“We’re never going to bypass not getting your job done or not being in the right position to do your job,” Sutton says. “It’s one thing if a guy makes a play — that comes with the game. But as far as knowing what to do? Being in the right spots, doing the right things on the field? Having the right communication? Those are fine-tuned things that we have to keep continuing to come together on.”
Sutton loves the fact the Lions staff is full of former players, and the similarities between Campbell and Tomlin are striking.
He calls Campbell the same person every day, and that’s a coach who brings genuine passion with every word. The fear of failure inherent to the sport Raymond described? The feeling of “I’ve got to prove myself! Prove myself! Prove myself!” that every new player feels on a new team does not exist here. Campbell was a tight end in the NFL for 10 seasons himself.
He relates to such dread and squashes it. Here, players think and play freely.
There’s no metric, no Combine drill to measure a clear conscience.
But players sure feel it.
“He’s behind you,” Sutton says. “He has that care factor behind all the guys. This is not, ‘Hey, if I make a mistake, I may not be here.’ It gives you a lot of peace. You can come here, be yourself and play your game and not worry about all these small negative factors that can creep into your mind. That’s big for Coach Dan. That’s appreciated coming into this situation blindly.”
It should be noted that these ’23 Lions don’t need to morph into the ’85 Bears. A jump from 32nd to 16th may be enough to win the NFC with everything cooking on offense. The mentality, to Sutton, is simple: Get off the field. Steal any and all possessions for the offense they can.
The 2023 defense he envisions won’t resemble the leaky 2022 version at all.
“That’s what I’m here for,” Sutton says. “We’re defending every blade of grass.”
The best coaches make the tough choices. Not the sentimental one.
Jamaal Williams wanted to be a Lion. This burgeoning Lion fan base wanted him back. From the risqué TD celebrations to the love for anime to the pregame interactions with fans and pledging in these pages “We’re going to beat their ass,” Williams was assumed to be Campbell’s vision brought to life. Interest in a reunion, however, was not as mutual as everyone thought.
In Montgomery, in Gibbs, the Lions see the potential for something greater in their backfield.
This isn’t a “Thunder” and “Lightning” arrangement. Detroit’s assistant head coach, Scottie Montgomery, also coaches the running backs and believes both players bring the best of all worlds. (He notes that Campbell’s fingertips are all over the run game, too.)
One of the great mysteries into this NFL season is how this creative offensive scheme will continue to evolve. Skepticism may still linger from last season’s 26.6 points per game without a Burrow, Mahomes, Allen type at QB. Gibbs, the team’s first pick, could be the position-less threat spearheading brand new plays into the playbook of offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. There was familiarity. Montgomery knows both of the rookie’s RB coaches in college well — Tashard Choice at Georgia Tech, Robert Gillespie at Alabama — and says both prepped him for a unique pro role. Whether it’s his knowledge of protections or how to precisely run the right routes from the right splits, Gibbs’ football IQ is abnormally high.
The Lions loaded a ton into his processing system, Montgomery says, and the growing pains didn’t last long.
Williams was wildly fun, but it’s also true that Campbell can never stop hunting for that DNA. At any position. His gamble is that Montgomery brings a juice Williams cannot. Straight from the NFC North, the former Bear has 3,609 yards and 26 touchdowns the last four years. In practice, Scottie Montgomery sees a “controlled chaotic presence” the entire team needs. (He also notes that Campbell’s fingertips are all over the run game.)
Nobody here comes close to pouring one drip of gasoline onto the flames. Nor does the one-day-at-a-time talk come across as cliché.
Those debilitating losses that started the Campbell Era never demoralized this team. Typically, such last-second defeats trigger 30-0, rock-bottom blowouts. It’s human nature for droves of employees to quiet-quit in such a dangerous profession. Yet even when the Lions went 3-13-1 in 2021, Walker insists Campbell made it seem like they were “16-0” into each game. (“Even the games we lost, Dan never made us feel like we were a losing team and we sucked. No, it was ‘This is what we’ve got to do good.’ We finally figured it out. It just takes one.”) Okwara agrees, adding that players honestly felt like this team was close to getting over the hump through the 1-6 start in 2022.
That’s why everyone, in unison, repeats they’re not paying attention to the building hype.
Honestly, this is a welcomed problem to have. Scottie Montgomery loves telling players that he’d rather be managing the expectations of being good than managing the expectations “of not being worth a shit.” He spent the 2010, 2011, 2012 seasons with the Steelers as a wide receivers coach. Nobody thought about expectations because, frankly, everyone knew they’d be damn good. The Lions are getting closer to such an existence. Campbell may seem like a WWE wrestler capable of spiking everyone’s adrenaline to all-time highs. Epic soundbites, however, cloud the reality that Campbell is building something more permanent.
Famed Navy SEAL-turned-author David Goggins said it best in his “Can’t Hurt Me” audiobook commentary, Right in the foreword, Goggins says he hopes his wild story doesn’t motivate listeners because “motivation is crap.” Motivation, he explains, comes and goes. People are motivated when their lives are perfect. The bills are paid, the sun’s out, the wife’s happy.
The quality that sticks is drive. An obsession. Imagine stepping outside in Chicago, in the middle of December, to go for a run, he explains. When the knifing wind chill smacks you in the face, a “motivated” person turns back around and plops onto the couch. An “obsessed” person truly does not care what obstacles stand in his way. He grabs winter clothes without thinking twice.
Many head coaches think they can load obsession into a syringe, stick it in their players’ asses during training camp and win Super Bowls. Matt Patricia isn’t alone. Such a strategy does not last. Dan Campbell may appear to be a master motivator, but he’s more concerned with cultivating a team of players who don’t need a pep talk to brave that wind chill. Their drive’s inborn.
That’s what feeds sustained winning.
The Lions will take it day to day this 2023 season. They’re not making any guarantees.
But there’s a quiet confidence to everyone’s voice here, as if they know exactly what’s about to go down.
“These guys are going to fight,” Raymond says. “As a man, if you’ve got another man who’s willing to fight with you — for you — what more can you ask for?”
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