How Darrell Bevell changed the Detroit Lions culture in less than a week

Detroit Free Press

Shawn Windsor
| Detroit Free Press

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Darrell Bevell didn’t waste time trying to change the mood inside the Detroit Lions’ headquarters in Allen Park. In fact, he needed just one day: 

Adjust a few rules. Recalibrate the tone. Shrink meeting lengths. Crank some music. Smile a little more. 

If all this sounds silly and unimportant, then I assume you think of NFL players as machines: download film, upload the playbook, box up and pass out carbs, send ‘em into battle on Sundays. 

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Or Thursday or Monday, not that the Lions need worry about the prime showcases for the most popular sports league in America. Still, you get the idea.  

It’s easy to forget that football is mostly about repetition and pain, and then more repetition and more pain, followed by a few hours to see who rep’d the best and who avoided the most pain.  

Bevell aimed to sprinkle some sugar on the week-to-week drudgery that doubles as game prep in professional football. To which I say: Hallelujah. Life is hard. So why not have pizza day in the office?  

His tweaks may not seem like much, but they mattered, and the proof was there for everyone to see Sunday in Chicago. 

Unless you weren’t looking. 

Or were looking but only for proof that nothing had changed; for proof that Matt Patricia inspired the same kind of performances, that firing him will change nothing and the Lions are cursed and what does any of it matter anyway.  

In that case, please, pop a mood stabilizer. Eat a Pop Tart. Take a nap. Take a breath.  

Besides, it’s not that the Lions quit on Patricia, it’s that the players played for something other than professional pride and a paycheck against the Bears. And, yes, they looked different.  

Not in talent level, per se, but in tone and body language. That is indisputable.  

When nearly every player — both before and after the game — talks about a change in atmosphere, there is probably something to that. 

Chris Spielman, a broadcast analyst and former Lion great, said during the game that he’d heard some players found Patricia’s style smothering. There are other words for his style, of course. But we don’t need to get into them here.  

What Sunday should remind us all is that coaching isn’t just about strategy on the field, even at the NFL level. It’s about listening and connecting to the players who must implement the strategy, the technique.  

Lose them, and you’re likely to lose the game — and your job. Not that Bevell or the players wanted to pile on the Patricia era. Rather, they wanted to embrace the Bevell era, even if it’s only been a week.  

Look, the Lions aren’t magically a Super Bowl team because another coach changed the routine two-thirds of the way through the season. They still need more playmakers. More important, they need a front office that can efficiently identify them, especially on defense.  

But the Lions are a team that appeared engaged in a way it hadn’t all season. Bevell deserves credit for that.  

Again, it’s not that the players didn’t try for Patricia.

Call it the nature of team sport. No matter the level, the intensity increases when you’re playing for someone else — a teammate, a coach, a fan base. It also increases when you’re relaxed, which was another goal of Bevell’s when he made the changes. 

He wanted to see some joy, some fun, some proof that while football is hard and vicious and intense, it remains a game, even a beautiful game, full of stories — like defensive tackle Kevin Strong coming off the practice squad, absorbing the game plan, and using his 285 pounds of mass to wall off the middle of the field and stop the Bears on fourth down. 

Bevell mentioned Strong’s game-winning play Monday when he met with reporters. He almost sounded as if he was in awe. 

At the least he sounded grateful. Not for what Strong did physically — the league is full of outsized humans with ridiculous balance and nimble feet. But for what Strong did mentally.  

Jumping from the practice squad into the fire. Learning the game plan. Finding the confidence to step onto the stage. 

Speaking of fire, it’s the other metaphor Bevell’s promoted the last week. As in: “play like your hair is on fire.” 

He means it as a way of playing free, loose, without looking over the shoulder.

What will it mean Sunday? When Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay come to Ford Field? 

Maybe not much. Maybe the Packers are too good, and no amount of change will change that. Maybe Bevell won’t win another game and we’ll look at the Chicago win as an anomaly, as a team feeling a reprieve before slipping back to the limitations of its roster. 

That’s possible.  

It’s also possible Bevell finds a way to eke out another victory or two the next four weeks and gives the Lions’ brass something to think about. And at the very least, helps them better evaluate the talent in the locker room. 

Whatever happens, the force of Bevell’s sunny personality should show the team’s decision-makers there are some players already on the team. Sheila Ford Hamp said as much the day she fired Patricia.  

Bevell is proving her right. Sometimes all that’s required is cranking up the music to change the score.  

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