The Morning After: How Dan Campbell’s Detroit Lions fooled everyone
Nobody wants to play the Lions right now. How they got to this point is unique, yet devastating for defenses.
This man was never the hunting and gathering Cro-Magnon we all wanted him to be. A 10-second video clip of Dan Campbell may appear cartoonish. Boorish. As if Chris Farley played Bud Kilmer in Varsity Blues. Saying you’d like a pet lion at practices and promising this will be a team that treads water as long as it takes is “f--king bury you” and, yes, warning opponents that his players will bite your kneecaps is funny but — devoid of context — the exact opposite of what every NFL team should desire in the modern game.
The innovative offensive mind is what you desire, followed by the transcendent quarterback plucked straight from a juggernaut SEC offense. Not a flashback to our old high school football coaches.
Yet, Campbell was always smarter than he let on. He always had layers.
The Detroit Lions chose to rebuild in a totally different manner than the rest of the NFL.
Now, few teams are set up for long-term success quite like this organization. Finally, the good karma is coming around for a group of players who’ve been buying into their 1-of-1 head coach through two years chockfull of kick-to-the-groin, last-second losses. On Sunday, at Ford Field, the Lions improved to 6-7 with a 34-23 win over the 10-3 Minnesota Vikings. A playoff berth is realistic in 2022. Contention is realistic in 2023. Campbell kept telling the world he was seeing progress — even as his Lions career started 4-19-1 — and, now, this offense is a well-oiled machine that wins every possible way. The Lions have averaged 32.2 points per game through this 4-1 stretch and, of course, everything starts on the offensive line. By choice. A defense that was an abomination for two months is now feasting on turnovers.
And Campbell, a coach haunted by a coaching miscue in Detroit’s Week 3 loss to Minnesota, keeps pulling the right levers. His actions are justifying his words at critical moments of the game. This day, one fake punt and one third-down pass to tackle Penei Sewell sparked this win.
They’ve got to keep winning. The Lions’ odds at making the playoffs are currently 22 percent, but that number jumps to 55 percent if they beat the Jets and Panthers these next two weeks. They own head-to-head tiebreakers over both the 7-5-1 Giants and Commanders. More than anything a simulator spits out, our eyeballs tell us that this is a team with zero interest in losing any time soon.
The Lions — yes, the Lions — are the last team anyone would want to play right now in the NFC.
Losing in the absolute gut-wrenching fashion these Lions had been losing can poison an entire organization. Five of Detroit’s losses this season have been by four points or less. That Thanksgiving Day defeat to the Buffalo Bills felt like a dagger. All of the losing, however, can be a positive. Campbell refused to let that poison spread. These Lions play like a team hardened by all their hardship.
And building a mentally tough team was the plan all along.
We threw ourselves into the rebuilding fray last September by sitting down with all of those gnarly offensive linemen for a series. Their individual stories are compelling. Growing up, Penei Sewell dodged tsunamis and cut the grass around his “shack” of a home by hand with a machete and, once he played football in the states, Sewell sent a poor chap to the hospital as the “shark” in a game of “Sharks and Minnows.” But it was startling to see just how unbelievably close this entire team was. When players hit on these themes in other markets, it can sound more like a word salad. Here, it’s real. When these linemen say they’d die on the field for teammates, they mean it.
Loved Taylor Decker’s perspective. He’s been here since 2016.
“I’m not afraid to say that I love all those guys,” said Decker, the longest-tenured Lion. “And I have their back out there on the field. Because we just do hard shit every single day and we do it together. You can’t replicate that bond in many other professions. Obviously, there’s military and other things like that. But it’s a deep bond when you go through hard shit together. Especially, I’ve been here for seven years now. We’ve had a lot of ups and downs and it seems there’s been more downs than ups. Hopefully we come out of the back end of that stronger as a group.”
With that, Decker took a deep breath.
“I know we have guys who want to win. Me personally, I’m dying to win. Losing is the f--king worst because you know you go out there and you put the f--king work in.”
The Lions blew it earlier this season against the Vikings. Leading 24-21, with 1:14 to go, they faced a fourth and 4 from the Vikings 36. And despite aggressively going for it on fourth down all game, Campbell elected to attempt a 54-yard field goal. The kick sailed wide right. The Vikings scored a touchdown in three plays. Moments later, Campbell told the entire team they should’ve gone for it and then opened his press conference by putting the loss on himself. “I just hate the decision,” he said then. “I wish I would’ve put it back in their hands offensively.” He looked and sounded completely dejected, and it’s easy to see why: This decision ran in sharp contrast to everything he preached.
Campbell wants a team built on inner-belief. Fighters. Gain four yards and the Lions would’ve won.
He said he’d regret that decision until the day he dies.
He did not make the same mistake through Sunday’s rematch.
Facing a fourth and 8 from their own 26, in the third quarter, Campbell called a fake punt. The Lions led 14-7. There was zero need to risk giving the Vikings life but they saw a potential soft spot on film and chose to go for the jugular. C.J. Moore took a direct snap 44 yards and, soon, the Lions took a 21-7 lead.
The Vikings have some guts themselves and Kirk Cousins was phenomenal. Minnesota’s quarterback finished 31 of 41 for 425 yards with two touchdowns and made this a 31-23 game with 2:50 to play after knifing a difficult TD strike to K.J. Osborn. But after Detroit recovered the onside kick — on a third and 7, from the Vikes’ 41 — Campbell rolled the dice again with a tackle-eligible pass. The 6-foot-5, 335-pound Sewell motioned right, leaked into the flat and made a twisting, athletic catch before turning upfield and diving headfirst for the first down.
We may just need to start plotting a second edition of “The Blood and Guts: How Tight Ends Save Football.”
“He could be a Hall of Fame tight end in my opinion, too, if he wanted to lose a little bit of weight,” Campbell said afterward. “He’s got real good hands. He’s got real good feet. He felt like he was going to be wide open, which he was, and we told him ‘Stay inbounds.’ Which he did.”
Campbell put the game in his players’ hands. The players delivered.
The players will not forget.
Too often, a new GM and head coach take over a team and the manic race toward The Next Big Thing at quarterback begins. A new regime begins this all-out sprint toward that quarterback by turning around and running the wrong direction around the track.
Sure, a season or two of losing can net a Joe Burrow. More often than not, the stink in the building is so strong, so rancid by the time a team gets that Top 5 pick, that you’re still in a state of rebuilding. The Arizona Cardinals are the latest operation stuck in place. For whatever reason, we all have that part of our brain that tells us the only way to win in the NFL is to land a transcendent quarterback and then build around that QB. When Campbell and GM Brad Holmes traded Matthew Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff, two first-round picks and a third-round pick, Goff (and his contract) was widely panned as the necessary-evil element of the deal. If Sean McVay deemed Goff a bad quarterback, we were to assume Goff was a bad quarterback. After all, McVay is the wizard of all wizards.
The Lions followed this up by passing on quarterbacks and receivers for Sewell.
Constructing a punishing offensive line was the top priority. Accomplish this and all of Campbell’s rhetoric would pack more punch.
The result is an offense that both bruises you with the run and demoralizes you with the pass. Detroit currently ranks fourth in total offense (376.4 yards per game) and fifth in points (26.8).
Goff, left for dead, believes he’s playing the best football of his career and he’s absolutely correct.
Anyone who thinks he was nothing but McVay’s puppet in Los Angeles — roughly 99 percent of people who watch football — has been proven dead, dead wrong in 2022. Goff is completing 65.3 percent of his passes for 3,352 yards with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions. He’s as classical as it gets at the position, yet has only been sacked 1.5 times per game. Because of that O-Line. With ample time, Goff’s been decimating secondaries downfield. (He’s always been tougher than folks realize.) Give Holmes credit for the supporting cast around Goff, too. He has assembled one of the most potent receiving corps in the NFL. With defenses paying so much attention to the rushing attack, 1-on-1 matchups are inevitable. It’s hard to find a better fivesome at receiver than Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams, Josh Reynolds, DJ Chark and Kalif Raymond this stretch run. Selecting St. Brown at No. 112 overall in 2021 could be an all-time coup.
So, why obsesses over unproven college commodities at QB? Why project and hope and pray a dazzling playmaker translates to the big leagues? Goff’s been plenty good enough and he’s only 28 years old. If the Lions need to draft a quarterback at some point, they will.
There’s no rush. No panic.
Everything in Detroit starts up front.
“It’s really nice, man. It’s really nice,” Goff said of the front five after the Vikings win. “Especially when you look around the league and see that not every team’s like that. I’m lucky to play behind them. They’re a force right now. We’re able to do a lot of things offensively that not a lot of teams can do because of how good they are.”
Added Campbell: “We can play any type of game we need to offensively. That’s a good thing. And it all starts with our offensive line.”
Don’t forget that this is a team that shed its roster of veterans. They wanted a blank canvas. They wanted 21- and 22- and 23-year-old pros who weren’t jaded by this ruthless sport. You don’t know what you don’t know, right? So many of these players had never been in a 1-6 hole before. So when times were tough, and their head coach gave them a reason to be optimistic, they believed him.
Whereas Matt Patricia was more apt to beat this group down, Campbell lifts them up.
Now, the Lions are finally reaping the rewards of such bliss.
The New York Jets are welcoming a buzz saw to MetLife Stadium next weekend.
Justin Herbert was sublime last night in the Chargers’ 23-17 win over Miami. Tua Tagovailoa was not. We saw quite a gap between the 2020 No. 5 and No. 6 overall picks. The league’s most accurate quarterback went 10 of 28 and, now, the early forecast is calling for lake effect snow in Orchard Park for the Dolphins’ rematch with the Buffalo Bills. An NFL season is inevitably packed with highs and lows for every team. That explains why Sean McDermott celebrated that Turkey Day win over the Lions like it was the Super Bowl. Collect your ugly wins and make no apologies. Whereas Miami is losing games during its tough spell offensively, Buffalo keeps winning during theirs. That could prove to be the difference in the AFC East.
I still can’t believe Mike White returned to the game. The Jets’ quarterback took some of the hardest hits you’ll see any quarterback absorb in any era and was evaluated at a hospital in Buffalo before heading back. Easy to see why teammates want White at QB over Zach Wilson. In brutal conditions, he also made some tough throws.
We sure jumped the gun on our effusive Titans praise. Jacksonville’s Trevor Lawrence threw for a career-high 368 yards in a breezy 36-22 win over the Titans. Mike Vrabel has lost three straight for the first time since taking over as coach in 2018. The boo birds were out in Nashville, too. Back when the Titans took Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to OT with Malik Willis, this looked like the last team anyone would want to face in the playoffs. Right now, AFC teams are licking their chops for Tennessee.
While the Lions soar, the New York Giants have been crashing back to earth. This was a prove-it game for Daniel Jones and the entire team — at home against the 12-1 Eagles — and the Giants were embarrassed, 48-22. Losing isn’t the worst thing for head coach Brian Daboll and GM Joe Schoen, who both have very hard decisions to make at quarterback and running back this spring. They know from experience that it pays to take one step back before taking two steps forward.
Cincinnati exorcised its Browns demons. This game is another case of a box score being misleading — Joe Burrow grossly outplayed Deshaun Watson.
Tom Brady must love football more than any of us even know. What else does he need to accomplish? He’s the undisputed greatest player ever. He has seven rings. There’s no reason to fly across the country to lose to Brock Purdy, 35-7. Crazy as it sounds, though, I think we’ll all see Brady play in 2023. It’ll probably just be somewhere else. The early prediction here? Las Vegas.
OK, OK. I like Baker Mayfield more than most. The personnel man who pushed for him in Cleveland, Scot McCloughan, sold me more last spring. That 98-yard drive to beat the Raiders with the ink on his contract still fresh is as good as it gets. Now, Mayfield has a realistic chance to play for the Rams job in 2023. One of the most underreported storylines this season is Matthew Stafford’s neck injury. He’s married with four kids. He won a Super Bowl. Stafford could easily decide it’s not worth getting surgery and try to live a happy, healthy life. Mayfield, meanwhile, still has everything to play for.
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