How the Detroit Lions bring 'grit' to life
They're one game from the Super Bowl. And you better believe they're following the lead of their quarterback, Jared Goff. How did Dan Campbell's crew put rhetoric into action? Live from Lions Country.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Answers are short and sweet and surgical from Jared Goff. He’s in no rush to regale America with detailed stories of his rebirth with the Detroit Lions. How this quarterback lifted himself off the canvas is inspiring but, no, Goff is not baring his soul ahead of the NFC Championship Game. His gameday demeanor — stone-cold stoic — is exactly what the world sees at a podium.
With the occasional comical exception.
When one local reporter told Goff this week the Lions have a lot of good players, the QB said “Thank you.” The reporter then added that they’re not necessarily superstars like the 49ers have. “Alright, nevermind,” responded Goff, to laughs.
The quarterback then pointed out that Detroit has a pair of All-Pros in wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and right tackle Penei Sewell, before acknowledging that reporter’s point. It’s true that much of the country has not seen the Lions’ best players. Silicon Valley hosts the brand names and captivating stories. Christian McCaffrey is the biggest star the NFL has at running back. Brock Purdy, “Mr. Irrelevant,” brings the ultimate underdog narrative to this stage. No player has been hyper-analyzed more than the 49ers QB. George Kittle is the WWE entertainer at tight end. Trent Williams is building his case as the best left tackle in NFL history. There’s Deebo Samuel and Nick Bosa and Fred Warner and Brandon Aiyuk.
Detroit did not get to this point — one win from Super Bowl LVIII — on the strength of star power.
This exchange brought back memories of a young Goff kicking his feet up inside the office of his high school football coach at Marin Catholic in the Bay Area. The No. 1 pick out of Cal was one year into his pro career and fresh off a rookie year that consisted of zero wins, seven losses, 26 sacks and an increasing number of fans around the country thinking he was a bust. Chatting for a feature at Bleacher Report, Goff began by pretending to punch himself across the face. Down 42-7 to the Falcons that rookie year, Goff took off for the end zone and was helicoptered at the goal line. That’s exactly what it felt like — getting slugged by a heavyweight boxer. Four days later, Seahawks corner Richard Sherman smacked him along the sideline.
He shared such stories with pride and purpose.
He elaborated a bit more in those days.
“I’m more scared of people thinking I’m a p-ssy than getting hit,” Goff said. “I’m more afraid that people will be like ‘He’s a little bitch,’ than I am of truly getting hit. So that’s what drives me to be like, ‘I’m fine.’ That mentality is what keeps me in the game. I remember going in for that touchdown knowing I’m about to get absolutely sandwiched against Atlanta. We’re down like 40. If I don’t go in and score right now, they’re going to be like ‘Look at this p-ssy.’ So guess what? I’m going to score. Sure enough, my chinstrap came off. My nose is bleeding.
“It lets me know that I gave everything I got. Regardless of what happens in the game. That play, I could’ve slid at the one-yard line or gone in a little slower to the one. But at the end, did I give everything I got? If I give everything I got — and I get hurt — so be it.”
This is the level of toughness that those Los Angeles Rams, under Sean McVay, never fully appreciated.
When McVay sent a slew of draft capital to the Lions for for Matthew Stafford, 99.9 percent of us viewed Goff’s inclusion in the trade as collateral damage. A placeholder until the Lions could escape that albatross contract and find their real franchise guy. Instead, Goff flipped the script. Instead, Goff has the Lions one win from the Super Bowl and will soon get a pay raise. All because this quarterback and this head coach were clearly a match made in football heaven. No magic wand was waved to improve from 3-13-1 to 9-8 to 14-5. The Lions spent three years seeking players capable of blasting through the sport’s inherent, inevitable adversity.
This is now the culmination.
Detroit is bringing Goff’s mentality into the NFC Championship Game.
The calculation isn’t complicated. To upset the 49ers, the Lions must overcome the 49ers’ star power with an endless supply of… hang on… here it comes… it’s written across their shirts everywhere here… grit. The word repeated nonstop at Allen Park is no platitude. It’s real. It’s exactly the type of energy Goff dreamt of bringing a team that summer day in 2017. Inside this Lions locker room, it’s abundantly clear that everyone is following the lead of their quarterback.
At one point, wide receiver Josh Reynolds scans the room.
“We’ve got guys who are dogs, man,” says Reynolds. “We’ve got guys that are willing to put their bodies on the line and suffer an injury, but still know that this moment's bigger than them. So, they suck it up and go back out there. That’s all you can ask for in the team.”
Nobody views anybody as a wuss around here.
Injuries are always a touchy subject for coaches. Not all players are willing to play through pain — their body, their life, their right. Head trauma is obviously a totally different story. Yet, Reynolds has been around this league for seven seasons. He’s seen players milk injuries because there’s unquestionably a large segment of the NFL populace perfectly content collecting a paycheck and coasting into Cancun with a clean bill of health. Teammates past have hurt their ankle, sat out, and he’d say to himself, Hold on. I just wrapped mine up and played! One of the great misconceptions is that everybody who plays football truly loves football. January reveals football character.
To many, the sport is an occupation — not a passion — and that can drain the life out of a room.
And that’s why GM Brad Holmes and Campbell were so determined to find individuals obsessed with the game. St. Brown catching 606 balls at the JUGS machine every week. Kalif Raymond sending 800 emails to each school in each conference of each division in college football. Penei Sewell declaring he’d die on the field for his teammates. Seriously. Given a chance to cool the hyperbole, he doubled down in a conversation with Go Long. You may remember Holmes losing his mind in excitement upon making Sewell this regime’s first draft pick.
Tapping out can become contagious on a team. But so can fight.
Says Reynolds: “It’s a threshold. It’s what you can take.”
It doesn’t take long for the veteran receiver to think back to the worst pain he’s ever winced through as a pro. Reynolds cups his hand over his adductor, the fan-shaped muscle that stretches from the pelvic muscle to the inner thigh. Earlier this season, he tore this muscle and it swelled to the size of a golf ball. Reynolds initially suffered the injury in practice before Detroit’s Sept. 24 game against Atlanta, didn’t say anything, and it swelled up the next week against the Packers.
No, this is not a fun location to tear a muscle.
“Right on the bottom line of the groin,” Reynolds adds. “I end up getting an MRI and, shoot, it tore off the bone. Welp, guess I don’t need it then!”
Reynolds started the week by walking in water and on an anti-gravity treadmill. He iced it. He took anti-inflammatories. He started putting weight on that leg and running. By Friday, Reynolds was able to do field work and played that Sunday. In the Lions’ 42-24 win over the Carolina Panthers, he caught four passes for 76 yards with a touchdown. Last year, he had a herniated disc in his back. Seeing 6-foot-6, 322-pound Halapoulivaati “Big V” Vaitai battle chronic back issues of his own inspired him to take a steroid pill to reduce inflammation, do core exercises and play on.
His why is simple: Pride.
Heading into this NFC title game, he now has a rib bruise. Not that he’ll be complaining about the pain to anybody. Staring ahead, in the direction of linebacker Alex Anzalone, Reynolds points out that multiple players on the team are playing through cracked ribs. Anzalone, the heartbeat of the defense, is one of them. He fractured three ribs in Week 18 against Minnesota. Despite this injury — and the sprained AC joint in his shoulder — the linebacker in the blond locks played 93 percent of the defensive snaps vs. the Rams in the wild card (eight tackles, two for loss) and 100 percent of the snaps vs. the Buccaneers in the divisional round (six tackles).
Of course, center Frank Ragnow became a local legend last weekend. He sprained both his knee and his ankle in grisly fashion, yet didn’t miss a snap.
All while trying to block the human block of granite that is 347-pound Vita Vea.
“I can’t sit here and complain,” Reynolds says. “I look around in the locker room and guys are hurting. Everybody’s hurting.”
Holmes was named the Executive of the Year by the Pro Football Writers of America, and that’s what hints at the key to this all. The hard work is done. No team in the NFL assesses football character quite like the Lions. There’s no need for Campbell to ever go full Bud Kilmer because the fine line is understood. If you’re able to play, you play.
There’s no need to convince players to love the game. They already know how guys are wired.
This season, Reynolds has served as one of Goff’s most trustworthy targets with 47 receptions for 715 yards and six touchdowns. He traces his own desire to play through pain back to childhood, to his mother making him play all sports with kids who were three or four years older. He knows this is a theme on this team, too. Growing up, St. Brown’s bodybuilder father — a two-time amateur Mr. Universe — used to take his boys to the hood to play gnarly games of pickup basketball. Meanwhile, Reynolds accumulated his own constellation of bruises from older kids.
Mom played college basketball herself and knew playing up in age would give her sons an advantage.
“That’s how you learn to be tough,” Reynolds says. “She was not putting us in our age group — at all.”
He was humbled by older kids on the court, but mostly? He was humbled by Mom. She didn’t show mercy in 1 on 1. Nor did she shower her boys with sympathy when they showed up at the doorstep with a bloody wound. One treacherous spill on rollerblades down a hill in front of the house comes to mind. Not only were his knees beat up — half of Reynolds’ face was scraped up. As always, Mom dabbed some alcohol to burn those wounds, spread Neosporin and, voila, Reynolds headed right back outside to play with friends.
“She knew the secret sauce growing up,” Reynolds says. “She raised me not to be a punk. That’s all it was. There’s no reason to cry about this. We’ll bandage it up. You feeling better? Go ahead. Go play. … There wasn’t anything stopping us from going outside and having a good time. And so I translate that to here. I love me some football. There isn’t going to be too many things that stop me from being out there. If I just can’t physically walk, then that might do it. But if I can walk, I can run.”
This is the season of attrition. Injuries plagued other playoff teams.
With the Lions set to play in their biggest game since 1991, Anzalone has officially set the bar.
The linebacker himself downplays those cracked ribs. With a wide smile, Anzalone declares this the healthiest he has been in a while. You know, as in two weeks. Told that ex-Packer Jordy Nelson once played through cracked ribs in the 2016 NFC Championship Game, his eyes get big. Now, that sounds tough to him. Unlike a wide receiver, Anzalone believes he’s able to protect himself because he’s the hitter, not the hittee.
Standing here, unfazed, he goes full Monty Python.
“Pain is all relative,” Anzalone says. “What your body perceives as pain is what pain is. And it’s different for everyone.”
Players are on the Lions roster for a reason. Rewind to last weekend’s 31-23 win over the Buccaneers: Three minutes, 48 seconds left in the third quarter, fourth and goal at the Bucs 1-yard line, 10-10 game. Obviously, Campbell decided to go for it. But rather than throw to an offensive tackle at the goal line, he sent in third-string running back Craig Reynolds. With a trio of receiving options bunched to the left side of the line, a running back who hadn’t carried the ball since Oct. 30 was the lone deep back.
Craig Reynolds (no relation to Josh) got the carry and crossed the goal line behind the hobbled Ragnow.
Consider the options at Detroit’s disposal: David Montgomery, Jahmyr Gibbs, Sam LaPorta, Josh Reynolds, St. Brown. Most coaches wouldn’t even think about handing the ball to a player who had spent three months mothballs. This was the most important play of the game. But the Lions didn’t hesitate because the Lions knew all along what they had in No. 13. This was a back who received all of one Division II offer out of high school. A back who totaled 5,277 scrimmage yards at a school called “Kutztown” and was close to taking a job at JK and J Insurance — this Plan B was a very real option. He went undrafted in 2019, signed with the Washington Redskins and was cut seven times into this Lions season.
Reynolds still talks to “Mr. White” at this company that insures Lincoln Financial Field in Philly amongst other properties.
They get lunch and dinner occasionally. Maybe he’ll still join the company one day. Until then, he’ll score touchdowns in the playoffs.
This is where the Lions have also taken on the personality of their quarterback. One was the No. 1 overall pick being mistaken for actor Ryan Gosling when he first moved to Los Angeles; the other was undrafted and anonymous. On paper, players like Jared Goff and Craig Reynolds could not seem more different. But this team is full of players who’ve seen their football careers pushed to the brink. When McVay scapegoated Goff as the reason his innovative Rams offense was sputtering, we all assumed Goff was destined for a life as a journeyman backup.
Goff instead played like a quarterback determined to prove the Rams coach dead wrong and is now set to be a very rich man for a second time.
Second chances are genuine in Detroit. Up and down the roster you’ll find players with points to prove.
Since high school, Reynolds has been taking notes of anyone who doubts him. It started in high school. He had an older brother who many locals said was far more talented.
“So I kind of just wrote things down,” he explains. “And then, there were some things that haven’t been done at our school before that people say I couldn’t do. So I wrote that down and ever since then I kind of keep notes on the doubts that people try to put on me. And when times get tough during training or in the offseason— and I don’t feel like getting up or feeling like doing something — looking back and reflecting on that gives you that little extra boost.”
After initially keeping the notes in his phone, Reynolds started writing ‘em down with pen and paper so it’d truly sink in. The notebook resides on his nightstand, and Reynolds is constantly jotting down more goals. Reading this before bed allows those goals to stay fresh on his mind and, he believes, helps speak his dreams into existence.
Spectacular feats become possible. Like his third-and-13 block of the year on Buccaneers corner Carlton Davis earlier this season.
With one hard left shoulder, Reynolds sent Davis airborne and freed St. Brown to paydirt. This is also the type of play that becomes contagious.
“We have the right guys,” he says. “We all believe in each other. We believe in what we’re trying to do here for the city.
“We know what the end goal is and we’re fighting for something that’s bigger than us. For the city and for the collective unit, we’re just trying to go out there and get the job done no matter what.”
Finding key contributors who’ve been abandoned by other teams is a fish-in-a-barrel exercise.
On the offensive line, vet Graham Glasgow supplanted “Big V” at right guard to keep the team’s best position group steamrolling ahead. Originally drafted by the Lions in ‘16, Glasgow signed with the Denver Broncos in ‘20 and was released after two seasons. His career could’ve been over right then and there. Instead, he inked a one-year, $2.75 million deal and proved to be a perfect fit inside Ragnow and Sewell. Detroit rushed for 2,311 yards during the regular season, fifth-most in the NFL.
It would’ve been easy to toil in misery last March, but Glasgow maintains he never doubted himself because he knew his rough ’22 performance was the result of a gruesome ’21 injury. In addition to breaking his ankle, he had torn the ligament that stretched from his foot to his ankle and several ligaments in his upper ankle. Glasgow couldn’t put pressure on his foot for two full months and needed a boot for a third month.
Upon signing with the Lions, he reminded himself he played good football in the past. He wanted “to be part of something great.” Whereas most NFL guards are one-trick ponies, Glasgow believes he’s able to block in a variety of ways: gap schemes, wide zone, full-slide, man-to-man pass pro. Vital in Detroit’s complex offense. Week to week, linemen could be asked to block differently.
Sitting at his locker stall, Glasgow thinks about that magic word for a moment — “grit” — and makes a distinction.
Individual players can be gritty but that doesn’t always mean the entire team is.
“A gritty team is one that responds to adversity well,” Glasgow says. “One that works against the norms and just goes out there and plays a brand of football that maybe not a lot of other teams are playing, and that’s something that we’re doing here.
“I feel like it takes two or three people doing it consistently. And then from there, maybe it becomes four or five. And then from there, it becomes six or seven or seven or eight, nine to 10 guys doing it. And then before you know it, a lot of guys are playing like that. You see the guy next to you giving his absolute all, doing his best, playing physically and then you’re like, ‘OK, f--k it. I’ll do it, too.’”
Sunday marks this line’s greatest test yet. The 49ers’ defensive line is violent and deep.
The key, to Glasgow, is treating this game like any other. Not building San Francisco up as an insurmountable monster.
On the other side of the ball that’s also the approach. Coordinator Aaron Glenn was asked this week how he’d describe his defense, a group that’s certainly had its ups and downs. “Are we the fastest? Are we the most talented?” Glenn asked aloud. “No, but we’ll bite somebody’s face off when we go play them.” And, yes. Glenn added that the Lions will continue to bite kneecaps when necessary.
The man who at the control center of Glenn’s defense believes this is a team that flatly works harder in practice. Elsewhere, Anzalone says “Walkthrough Wednesdays” are the norm and teams don’t even use their padded practices. That’s not the case here. Within the CBA, teams are permitted one padded practice per week up to Week 13 and Campbell uses them.
There are no “hammerhead” drills conducted. The days of Matt Patricia are long gone.
But getting into pads and practicing at high speeds in today’s game is rare. Campbell strikes a perfect balance.
“We’re built different, and we practice a certain way,” Anzalone says. “We’re going to be smart about it. But at the same time, we know what it takes to be different in this league.
“It sets it more of a mentality than anything.”
Anzalone sets the tone on defense. Defensive tackle Alim McNeill called him the “LeBron” of the unit on Thursday. By now, everyone mostly knows where they’ve got to line up. But it’s true that he’s the one with all the answers before the snap. OK, so players cannot literally take a bite out of a 49er player’s face at Levi Stadium. Anzalone knows exactly what Glenn wants. Every single hit needs to be delivered with extra punch in a game like this because all it takes is one hit, one forced fumble to completely change the complexion of a playoff game. Anzalone saw 49ers wide receiver Jauan Jennings block Packers corner Corey Ballentine into the Gatorade jugs last week.
Not many teams enjoy playing violently, but the 49ers sure do.
The Lions defense needs to match this violence, Anzalone says, and “exceed” it.
McNeill points to the team’s 24-23 win over the Rams in the wild-card round as the embodiment of this team’s grit. The stakes. The pressure. The fact that Detroit hadn’t won a playoff game since ‘91. This game featured a foreign level of intensity.
“It was a fight,” McNeill says. “That was probably one of the hardest games I've ever played in my life.”
Everyone is hurting but, to McNeill, it’s impossible to tell. He sees “Week 1”-level energy in this locker room. That’s how the Lions feel in the fourth quarters of games, too. The last two weeks, McNeill dipped into an energy reserve he didn’t even know he possessed. He can’t think of the exact word for this sensation in the fourth quarter. Nearby quarterback Nate Sudfeld lends a hand, by calling it “runner’s high.” That’s it. Halfway through the fourth, McNeill actually feels his body warm up.
To illustrate, McNeill tips his hand upward.
“We ascend,” he says. “That’s how we’re built. You train all offseason for that moment. But that’s our mentality. How we’re constructed. Everybody on this team has that type of mentality. By any means necessary, you just have to get it done. And we want to get it done that bad.”
The Lions may be the seven-point underdogs.
That’s not how they’re thinking on this flight west. They expect to send a message.
“I haven’t thought about losing at all,” McNeill says. “I’m coming into this game trying to blow ‘em out. If we can. I’m not worried about none of the stuff that the media is trying to put out there. The underdog stuff, the points spread, whatever. No. I’m trying to beat them just like anybody else would try to beat them.
“We’re going to play our brand of football and do what we do. Be physical. They have great players. They do. But they’re not worried about who’s on our team. So I’m not worried about who’s on their team.
A game like this can change perception. Win the NFC Championship, reach the Super Bowl in Las Vegas and this entire room of players will force America to view the Detroit Lions in a completely new way. They’ve lifted the curse. Now, they want more. Anzalone is one of the rare players on the roster who’s even heard of “Kutztown” because he grew up 20 miles from Craig Reynolds’ former school.
Sure, he agrees that they’ve got such D-II grinders on the roster.
But Anzalone makes it clear that the Lions are bringing real talent to this title game.
“It’s not like we’re just a bunch of scrappy, work-hard, try-hard people,” Anzalone says. “You have to have the talent in the league to perform high. It’s why we’ve been winning.”
Goff might’ve been a forgotten man on a Lions roster trying to build something from scratch… but he’s still a former No. 1 pick.
“It’s not like he was an undrafted guy,” Anzalone says. “He wasn’t Mr. Irrelevant. He was a No. 1 overall pick. He signed a $150 million contract.”
The Lions might be more talented and more experienced where it matters most: Quarterback. Purdy’s story is inspiring, but Purdy struggled handling a wet ball last week. Get the San Francisco QB off his spot, and he’s not the same point guard Kyle Shanahan wants at the position.
On the verge of potential greatness, these Lions will take their cue from their steely quarterback. At one point reporting back in 2017 on that Goff story, the QB’s father pulled out his cell phone to show the aftermath of the worst hit Goff took in the preseason of that rookie year. It was disturbing. His entire lower back was covered in a massive black bruise. He has zero problem taking your hardest hit. Detroit’s prepared for the 49ers’ best punch.
When Josh Reynolds hears his quarterback’s ‘17 quote, he chuckles and says that’s exactly how the entire team has approached this postseason. “I’m not going to walk around and say I got a bruised rib when about three people on the team got cracked ribs,” he says. “Shit, give me some Advil. I’ll be alright.”
McNeill listens his quarterback’s words and nods.
“That’s the general,” McNeill says. “He’s the captain of the team. He’s the quarterback. He’s the general.
“All energy we get comes from Jared.”