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Why it's time for the Detroit Lions to win
This is a crucial offseason for Dan Campbell's bunch. All they've done through Aaron Rodgers' will-he, won't-he routine is build a team that's now on the cusp of contention. Can they finish?
INDIANAPOLIS — When the quarterback who once professed to owning teams in the NFC North is now podcasting the meticulous details of how to take a No. 2 in the dark, everything else happening in the division tends to get lost.
Aaron Rodgers threatens to exit the building. Freakouts commence.
Next thing you know, we’re all listening to a quarterback discuss “two-wipers” the same day the draft’s top prospect is arrested on charges of reckless driving and racing in connection with a car crash that killed two people.
Yet as the Green Bay Packers got jerked around by their quarterback these last few years, a much stranger development transpired: the Detroit Lions got their act together. GM Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell did not kid themselves. They knew it’d take a solid three years to turn a perennial loser into a winner. First, they unloaded Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff, two first-rounders and a third-rounder and agreed to play rookies as much as possible. To truly build from the ground up, they needed fresh, totally unblemished minds for molding. And rather than hyper-analyze and hyperventilate ways to acquire the next franchise quarterback, Detroit emphasized the offensive line. We examined this nasty group in-depth.
The result? Campbell’s gang learned how to win. After starting 4-19-1, these Lions won eight of their 10. A stretch run bookended by signature victories over those Rodgers-led Packers. The Minnesota Vikings no doubt deserve a say in the matter. They won the division after all. But this is now a legitimate three-team race. Because as the Packers triple-downed on Rodgers with a 400-pound anvil of a contract, the Lions strategically put themselves in a realistic position to contend. At the NFL Combine, on the verge of Year 3 together, both Campbell and Holmes sounded like two men who know exactly how crucial this offseason is for what they’ve so carefully built.
Detroit has a chance to leap into contention, a surreal reality for a franchise that’s won one playoff game since 1957.
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There’s always a yin and yang to the universe. Chaos and calm. Rodgers decided to give Aubrey Marcus 96 minutes of his public time before giving Packers GM Brian Gutekunst one second in private. As mystery consumes the team that’s dominated the division most of three decades, there’s been nothing but normalcy in Detroit. All of the epic rhetoric from Campbell finally equated to wins through November and December. And while neither coach or GM wanted to hoist lavish expectations atop their franchise, it was impossible for either individual to hide their excitement here in Indianapolis.
Both know this spring can potentially launch the Lions into serious contention.
“I said as soon as he was hired that he had the traits of an elite head coach,” Holmes said. “I’ve always admired the way he’s been able to make the right decisions and lead the team and pull the team out of a dark place. We had a plan. We started young. We drafted, we developed. You’ve got to take some lumps. Those guys have to learn to win. I thought Dan has done an incredible job of righting the ship. We’re only going to get better.”
Going young was a conscious effort. In each of the last two seasons, the Lions fielded one of the two youngest rosters in the NFL.
Growing pains weren’t merely a byproduct. Growing pains were actively embraced. Through the 1-6 start to last season, the Lions surrendered 32.1 points and 421.3 yards per game. Aaron Glenn’s days appeared numbered as the unit’s coordinator. Gradually, all the 22- and 23-year-olds improved. They started playing much faster. The Lions clobbered two teams that’d advance to the final eight — the New York Giants (31-18), Jacksonville Jaguars (40-14) — and nearly upset the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving Day.
Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (9.5 sacks, three interceptions) could be the player that anchors Detroit’s defense for a decade-plus. The former Michigan star called Year 1 “just a little appetizer.” Entering his first full NFL offseason, he expects a massive jump in 2023. Even beyond the second overall pick, 97th pick Kerby Joseph (four interceptions), 217th pick James Houston (eight sacks), and 188th pick Malcolm Rodriquez (87 tackles) were all were thrown into the fire.
“We’re young and we’re going to continue to grow just by the nature of our young guys developing and learning football,” Campbell said. “Hutch is going to be another year smarter. He’s got high ‘FBI.’ … These guys need to love it and have FBI. Some guys can tell you exactly what they have to do. They have an instinct about them, too. Some of them can’t really tell you but they’re always in the right place. There’s something to be said for that, too.”
So, the entire Lions staff does value this time of year. Detroit owns four of the first 55 picks, including No. 6 and No. 18 overall. Campbell is on the hunt for more “FBI,” short for football intelligence. Asked about the “spectacle” nature of the NFL Combine, Campbell put the value of this whole event in perfect perspective. First, he chuckled and said he didn’t want to get himself in trouble. Because the workouts you see propped up as earth-shattering developments on NFL Network? Yeah, he doesn’t care.
“To me, you grade them off the tape,” Campbell said. “You don’t grade them off of somebody out here in pajamas running around in a 40 with no defender around or offender.”
Still, Campbell sees immense value in meeting draft prospects face to face. Considering there’s usually a plethora of important people in the room — the head coach, the coordinator, the position coach, often the GM — this can be an intimidating 20-minute period for prospects. The speed date passes by quickly. Prospects must sell their game in a very, very short amount of time. Thus, Campbell wants to see “conviction” above any other quality.
Does the player get frazzled? Panicked?
Or is there an air of confidence?
“Can you put them in a gray area,” Campbell said, “and see if they’ll give you a black-or-white answer? Which is what you want. You want the conviction.”
Two drafts in, the core of the Lions roster is filling up with young players with such conviction in pressure-packed moments.
Tackle Penei Sewell isn’t only getting in Aaron Donald’s face after the whistle. Against the Vikings, he’s running in motion on third and 7 to leak into the flat for a reception that clinches a win over Minnesota. Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown isn’t only hauling in 23 catches on third down — two away from the NFL’s best — he’s closing out a win at Lambeau Field with a second-and-17 catch and flip back to D’Andre Swift on second and 17 for 14 yards. Two snaps later, on fourth and 1, Goff threw to D.J. Chark to end the Packers’ season. Loads of conviction all around.
At the time of this press conference, Campbell estimated he had met with 30 to 35 players and starred four players who possessed the “it” factor he craves.
Here’s what it looks like inside the room:
“When you sit in there and you hear them talk about football, there’s a fire burning in them. They can’t sit in their seat. They’ve got to get up and talk. They’ve got to tell you what’s going on — ‘This is what I think.’ You can’t fake that. When you have that, you love ball. You’ll eat it, breathe it and do anything for it, do anything for your teammates. You’re uber-competitive. You watch the guys and present them this many installs before you get to the tape and they’re taking notes and asking questions. Man, when you go, they throw the sheet down. To them, it’s a competition. It’s ‘I’m about to show you how good I can do this. I’m going to show you what I can retain. I can show you I understand what you’re wanting me to do.’ Those guys are rare. If you can find those guys — and they’ve got some ability, which most guys here do — it’s hard not to like them.”
First comes free agency and Holmes sees a “mutual interest” in Jamaal Williams returning. It was a career year for the anime-loving, hand-breaking, Farmer Fran-impersonating running back. Williams rushed for 1,066 yards, an NFL-high 17 touchdowns and, as you may have learned on the Happy Hour, he’s much much more than a football player. Understandably, the old-school Campbell is a fan of someone who loves the way Earl Campbell ran. Nor is Campbell giving up on the lightning to Williams’ thunder. Swift’s promising career has been scarred by injuries three years in but, as his 5.5 yards per carry in 2022 suggests, he’s a big-play threat.
“He’s one of those guys who can take it to the house anywhere on the field,” Campbell says. “He wants to get it. He works hard in the classroom. We thought we had a recipe going into the year and it didn’t work out. He got a little bit banged up. By the end of the year, he started to feel better and his production went up. Listen, we’re going to start all over from scratch again. Let’s find another way to see if we can help him stay on the field. I already know he’s doing that for himself so we have to do that on our end. What can we do better by him? He’s too talented to not have out there. He’s an explosive athlete.”
Another playmaker will have the chance to start healthy, too. The Lions traded up for one of the 2022 draft’s most explosive playmakers.
Wide receiver Jameson Williams, off a torn ACL in college, was essentially a redshirt as a rookie. Shockingly, the Lions still managed to finish seventh in passing yards and fifth in passer rating despite getting all of one reception out of the 12th overall pick. There wasn’t much use for Williams once he returned to action in December. His one catch did go for a 41-yard touchdown, and he also added a 40-yard run while also scoring on another long play that was negated by a penalty. Possibly Williams’ top-end speed elevates this Lions offense — one that retained coordinator Ben Johnson — to another level.
Holmes quietly challenged the rookie this week.
He agreed that Williams’ return is similar to adding another first-round pick.
“We’re expecting big things,” Holmes said. “It was good for him to get some type of game experience to feel the speed of the game. But we’re going to continue to do everything we need to do to make sure he’s set up to succeed. Jameson also needs to hold his part and make sure he’s doing everything that he needs to do. It’s always accountability on both sides. We expect big things from him. He’s got rare talent, rare ability. He’s got a serious passion for the game.”
Then, there’s quarterback.
The year before Holmes and Campbell took over, the Lions made the sort of poison-pill decision that could’ve set the team back a generation. At No. 3 overall, Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia selected cornerback Jeff Okudah over Oregon’s Justin Herbert. They tricked themselves into thinking they still had a roster that could contend with Matthew Stafford, who was in his 12th season. The wheels came off. Both were fired. The first order of business for Holmes and Campbell was to move Stafford for draft capital. That meant adding Goff’s $134 million contract to the payroll and worrying about this whole franchise quarterback thing later. Rather than panic at the position, they built a powerhouse of an offensive line.
Three years later, there’s still no panic and Goff’s salary is now a steal. He’s scheduled to make an average of $26.5 million the next two seasons. Forgotten by all, Goff completed 65.1 percent of his passes for 4,438 yards with 29 touchdowns and seven picks last season. He’s still only 28 years old. The Lions do need to find a backup. And if there’s a developmental arm the front office wants to develop for two seasons — Florida’s Anthony Richardson? — that could be an option. The Lions still have the luxury to remain calm at quarterback… unlike the Panthers, Commanders, Colts, and other teams that obviously need a new starter.
Asked directly if he’d consider a quarterback at No. 6 or No. 18, Holmes simply said they’d find the best players. There’s genuinely no need to open or shut that door.
Before then, he can go big-game hunting in free agency. After such an extreme youth movement, expect the Lions to add two or three veterans at premium positions. That’s how this 9-win team can became a 12- or 13-win team. Detroit has about $23 million to spend, the 10th-most salary-cap space in the NFL, per OverTheCap.com.
Trial by combat helped the rookies. Now, the Lions can realistically compete for any of the top players on the market. Defensive tackle Javon Hargrave, safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson, safey Jessie Bates, cornerback Jamel Dean, linebacker Lavonte David and linebacker Bobby Wagner are all appealing. Signing Wagner makes all the sense in the world here. He turns 33 in June but is still playing at a high level. A second-team All Pro last season, Wagner totaled 140 tackles, a career-high six sacks, five pass breakups and 10 quarterback hits. The Rams cut him loose because they had zero choice but to shed salary — it had nothing to do with production.
Wagner was also Pro Football Focus’ top-rated linebacker in 2022. Maybe the best sign that he still has gas in the tank is his 77.9 coverage grade. That would’ve been the Lions’ best mark.
Unlike years past, these Lions have a lot to offer.
“When Dan and I first got here,” Holmes said, “all the free agents we inquired about, I thought there was some of that asterisk of ‘Does he want to come here?’ Because we’re just getting started. I don’t feel like that’s the case now. The question is now, ‘Do these players fit the standard of our culture to be on our team?’ I think we changed that narrative, which is a good thing. … We’ll always be selective and strategic in free agency. You’ve got to be careful in free agency. It’s still about finding the right guys. It’s not about how much money you have to spend. Regardless of how many resources, you always have to be selective and strategic.”
The Lions knew they had nothing to play for those precious moments before facing Green Bay at Lambeau Field in Week 18, thanks to the Rams losing to Seattle earlier in the day.
Or did they? Jamaal Williams told us he had zero clue. Campbell never even brought up the playoff implications in his pregame speech. This was a unit already ultra-motivated to beat Green Bay. Williams said the coach played a string of clips of players and analysts overlooking Detroit. Then, they made Rodgers disappear. The four-time MVP went 2 of 6 for 12 yards with an interception in the fourth quarter.
Now, the Packers are still waiting for Rodgers to finish up his podcast appearances so they can chat with him about his future. They’d like to forge ahead and maybe Jordan Love, the new sheriff in town, picks up where Favre and Rodgers left off in this division. Love’s the ultimate wild card.
For once, the Lions aren’t forced to make such seismic decisions in an NFL offseason. It’s always hard to quantify the concept of momentum out of a regular-season finale, but the Lions’ 20-16 win did feel significant.
“To be able to go out to Lambeau, the last game of the year, outdoors, at night, against that quarterback—against a team that has won the division repeatedly for a number of years—I felt like that’s a barometer for where we’re at. Where we started. Where we’ve come to. And, man, we just continue to go. That’s a good way to finish out.”
That was the end of Campbell’s presser. He walked away without delivering a wild one-liner bound to go viral. He didn’t emphatically announce the Lions’ goals for 2023 in bold letters because, honestly, Dan Campbell didn’t need to.
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