Allen Park — Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The Lions believe they’ve been close and are edging closer. When Matthew Stafford was healthy last season, they had a shot in every game. Even after he departed with a back injury, they had a lead in virtually every game.
In the NFL, where one possession determines most outcomes, that doesn’t mean much. It especially doesn’t mean much when you’re the team that keeps falling short in the fourth quarter.
But it’s where the Lions are planting their flag and pinning their hopes, as the first week of training camp wrapped up Sunday. It has to start at the end, in the final minutes, when one big run or big catch or big stop wins it. It’s the unspoken (and occasionally spoken) emphasis in the pivotal third year under Matt Patricia. You see it in how the team has been constructed, adding skilled players on offense, bulking up the line to bulk up the running game, and adding veterans on defense.
No, the Lions aren’t built for the long haul, not with Stafford entering his 12th season, not with so many unproven guys in Bob Quinn’s fifth season as GM. But if they’re finally, maybe, built for the fourth quarter, they’ll have a chance to win a lot more than three games.
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They call it “dagger time,” a rallying cry from Stafford and the offense. It relates to the defense, as well. But before they bring the dagger, they have to bring the swagger.
That means having a running game that can pound with impunity and grind the precious final minutes off the clock. They drafted D’Andre Swift to join Kerryon Johnson in the backfield and added a bunch of big blockers, including third-round guard Jonah Jackson.
That means having multiple options so the quarterback doesn’t have to make every play when it matters. After Stafford departed, the Lions went 0-8 and finished 3-12-1, and by the end, they were nearly out of pass-catchers and quarterbacks.
It means having a stout, poised defense that doesn’t surrender big plays at pressure time and can deliver the occasional crunch-time sack. That’s why Trey Flowers was brought in last year, and more experienced players were brought aboard now — Danny Shelton, Jamie Collins, Reggie Ragland, Desmond Trufant and others. Quinn and Patricia didn’t ask for more time — and clearly haven’t earned it — by tearing down the roster again and filling it with young guys.
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Patricia’s defense has been in place and he’s stocked it with familiar faces from New England, although he has a new coordinator in Cory Undlin. He also has an established offensive coordinator in Darrell Bevell who’s committed to running the ball.
Losing it late
Getting close is the easy part in the NFL. The Lions held a lead in 14 games and played the highest number of tight contests last season. They blew a league-high six fourth-quarter leads and allowed 148 points in the fourth quarter (only the Dolphins were worse).
“Certainly a great learning lesson for us last year on trying to get over that hump,” Patricia said. “There’s also a lot of it that says, ‘The last inch is always the hardest.’ We know that it becomes very difficult when you’re trying to break through those scenarios and a lot of it is mindset, and that’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
It’s a forceful mindset Quinn and Patricia pledged to instill, and this might be their last chance to do it. Was there unusual misfortune last season? Sure. In addition to Stafford’s injury, the Lions’ top running back (Johnson) missed half the season, and touted rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson and receiver Marvin Jones missed considerable time.
Hockenson, the No. 8 pick in the draft, started well, then hurt his ankle and couldn’t finish. Now he’s packed on extra muscle and adopted a more fun-loving approach. His enthusiasm has been notable, even after a one-week isolation because of a positive COVID-19 test. He’s made a couple spectacular red-zone catches in training camp, and if he can come close to his billing, that’s a huge late-game target.
“We call it dagger time now, something we came up with in a team meeting,” Hockenson said. “We’ve always heard that growing up — finish finish finish. We wanted to put our own spin on it, something Stafford came up with.”
It makes sense because Stafford ultimately is the guy who has to make the most important plays. And he’s certainly capable of a finishing touch, with 28 fourth-quarter comebacks in his career.
By quirk or by circumstance, the Lions jumped out to more leads last season, then blew them. They squandered an 18-point fourth-quarter lead in a tie at Arizona, and couldn’t stop Patrick Mahomes in the closing seconds of a 34-30 loss to the Chiefs at Ford Field.
Is it a lack of aggressiveness in late-game play-calling? Lack of execution? Lack of playmakers? Yes.
Time to deliver
Once again, the potential for improvement is apparent, although the result is far from guaranteed.
“There’s plenty of guys on this offense for me to feed,” Stafford said. “We have a good mix. I think we’ve got a really good locker room, a tight locker room. But man, we’re just grinding through camp, trying to figure out what our identity is going to be, who we’re gonna be as a football team, what we’re gonna be about.”
That’s almost always the question with the Lions, isn’t it? They tried for years to be all about Stafford, and he can be prolific but hasn’t come up big in the biggest games.
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Quinn has tried to construct a physical running game, the key to controlling the ball in fourth quarters, but the Lions were 21st in rushing. Swift provides a shiftier look than Johnson and can catch it out of the backfield. Danny Amendola is agelessly dependable, and Jamal Agnew has come over from defense to provide more burst. With Jackson and 6-6 Halapoulivaati Vaitai likely manning the right side of the line, next to rising center Frank Ragnow, the Lions should be big enough to get the small, vital gains.
Stafford has been particularly sharp in camp, and didn’t let the pandemic stall his offseason. He worked out with receivers in Georgia and California and kept the group engaged. Stafford may not be outwardly vocal, but he further cemented his leadership role. Even new teammates have found it impressive.
“Me and Amani (Oruwariye) always talk about ways we can get better going against a quarterback like him,” first-round cornerback Jeff Okudah said. “He’s putting the ball into really amazing spots. I think sometimes, although we’re in competition, I’m also in awe of the throws he’s able to make.”
Stafford can deliver darts, but the point is, the Lions need more daggers from more players and more positions. I don’t know which comes first, the dagger or the swagger, but you can’t have one without the other.