In shipping Matthew Stafford to Rams, Detroit Lions show they aren’t copying any blueprint

Detroit Free Press

Shawn Windsor| Detroit Free Press

 

The Detroit Lions want to build a team in a similar way the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams did. And if that leaves you feeling a little uneasy, that’s understandable.

Not because the model used by those two franchises didn’t work — both have been competitive and made runs in the playoffs recently; in fact, they played one another in the NFC title game two seasons ago.

But because the Lions are coming off a stretch where they tried to mimic what another successful franchise did, and it failed spectacularly. Thanks a lot for the post-traumatic stress syndrome, New England.

It’s true almost every coach and/or general manager is going to bring parts — perhaps lots of parts — of his former organization to his new one. That’s human nature. That’s also true of most of us who learn at a job in one spot before moving to another.

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So, trying to emulate what worked isn’t a dead-end. It’s a matter of taking the tenets of a successful place and mixing them in with your own vision.

If you listen to the Lions new head coach, Dan Campbell, and to the team’s new GM, Brad Holmes, this is exactly what they are hoping to do.Though their reference points aren’t simply the teams that last employed them.

They are looking elsewhere, too. Which should give you a bit of hope that this isn’t a Detroit-New England redux.

Campbell recently mentioned the Kansas City Chiefs. Not that he wanted to put everything into finding the next Patrick Mahomes, but in looking at how Andy Reid, the team’s head coach, and John Dorsey, who was the GM, and now a senior adviser to Holmes, rebuilt that franchise before Mahomes arrived.

Kansas City made the playoffs four consecutive seasons with Alex Smith as its quarterback. The Chiefs played solid defense, ran creative schemes offensively — Reid does this wherever he coaches — and remained competitive as they stockpiled young talent, especially on offense.

When Dorsey and Reid traded up to grab Mahomes with the No. 10 pick in the 2017 draft, he arrived at an organization ready to win. Both the Rams and the Saints made similar moves, building out the defense and the line of scrimmage and in finding skill players.

In New Orleans, the Saints retooled as Drew Brees had a few years left on the back end of his prime. They hit on several draft picks to do it. And while they couldn’t win another Super Bowl, they consistently made a run.

Los Angeles, meanwhile, built one of the best defenses in football, in part by drafting Aaron Donald. Offensively, they drafted running back Todd Gurley, solid offensive linemen, and traded for a couple receivers to give their No. 1 overall pick from the 2016 draft, quarterback Jared Goff, a Super Bowl level squad to lead.

And he did, two years later.

Campbell and Holmes both talk about building a foundation that will last, which is why they chose quantity over quality in trading with Los Angeles, knowing that the Rams’ two first-round picks will likely be in the mid-20s or higher, depending on how well Stafford meshes with his new team.

In forgoing a trade with a team with a mid-first round pick or higher, they are betting on their own eye for talent, and their own ability to identify what kind of player they want, and then to develop that player.

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“I’m not as concerned about trying to find the high-priced free agent, the No. 1 guy on the board,” Campbell told reporters recently. “Most teams might do that because that’s the guy that puts them over the edge. As much as I would love to believe that we’re that close, we’re probably not that close. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to win, it just means that we’ve got a ways to go, and why use that capital when we could add a couple of guys that have a little more grit and they fit what we’re doing and maybe they’re not quite as polished?”

Why, indeed?

Patience is what he is preaching. Patience is what inspired the trade with Los Angeles. That’s a good sign for those tired of hearing about quick fixes.

As Campbell said, “man, you heard me say this, it’s not always about the best guys, it’s about the right guys. And when you get a group of guys together that know how to work together and they mesh and they’re all of the same mindset, you can do some pretty good things. So I think patience, man, is important.”

No fan base has had to more patient than the Lions’, of course. It’s silly to even say that. And it’s not easy to be asked for patience again.

But at least this time, there is a plan taking shape by a franchise that continues to hire experienced and savvy folks to surround Campbell and Holmes. It’s a little surreal, frankly. So was the Saturday night trade of Stafford — it’s official in mid-March.

Admit it, you were surprised the Lions found two first-rounders for Stafford. And while the picks don’t come until 2022 and 2023, this team wasn’t competing for a playoff spot before then anyway.

Goff could, possibly, keep the team reasonably competitive on most Sundays. That’s fine: One and two-win seasons don’t build culture. Even a few wins or more should help.

In agreeing to take him and his big contract wasn’t just a way to squeeze another first-round pick from Los Angeles. It’s a way to stabilize the offense for the next season or two. Why not take a look and see what the 26-year-old can do with a change in scenery? We know he’s good enough to play in a Super Bowl.

If he continues to struggle? Well, the Lions can cut him in two years for nothing.

In the meantime, they get the chance to rebuild through the draft and seek the players they want. They get to lay a foundation for the next potential franchise quarterback, whether he arrives this spring or next.

And while that may be similar in ways to what Los Angeles and Kansas City and even New Orleans did, Holmes and Campbell left plenty of room to follow their own vision, too.

Ultimately, they bet on themselves, not the exact blueprint of another franchise.

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