No NFL team is exempt from the fallout stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Every franchise is having to navigate the significantly reduced salary cap, a result of empty stadiums curtailing revenue. And, although it has yet to be announced, everyone is expecting the offseason program to once again be conducted virtually.
Still, while every team has been impacted, it can be easily argued this offseason will be more difficult to wade through for some teams more than others. The New Orleans Saints, for example, had to make far deeper roster cuts than they likely ever imagined when the cap came in approximately $30 million below pre-pandemic expectations.
Then there are teams like the Detroit Lions, who are in the middle of their own overhaul, with a new coaching staff, front office and quarterback, trying to establish a new culture and identity in these unusual circumstances.
Just don’t expect coach Dan Campbell to use that as an excuse.
“Here’s the beauty of it; everybody in the league has to fall under the same rules,” Campbell said. “That’s the bright side to all of this. We’re all kind of the same in that regard. … I’m not that concerned about it, honestly.
“If there was a concern, it would be strength and conditioning, that part of it, and your guys working together a little bit. But if that’s the case, you give them a plan and you keep tabs on them and make sure they’re staying on top of what they need to do. But listen, we’re not going to use that as an excuse for us. If we can’t start until training camp, then you know what, we’ll be ready to go and we’ll hit the ground running and we’ll get what we need to get out of it and adapt as fast as possible.”
Outside expectations for the Lions are understandably low. Even though those within the organization have resisted the term “rebuild,” that’s exactly what this is as the brass strips down the roster they inherited, clearing cap space and accumulating draft picks in the process.
But while projection models will tell you the Lions are destined to finish near the bottom of the standings in 2021, Campbell predictably refuses to concede to that thinking.
“We don’t feel like we’ve got a free pass, Campbell said. “Yeah, there’s pressure, but that pressure is what drives you. That’s why we are in this business. That’s why I’m in this business.
“… Look, I’m one of 32 sitting in this seat, and so my job is to figure out how can we win with what we add on this roster right now? Or what’s here or whatever (general manager) Brad (Holmes) comes up with, us collectively. That’s my job, that’s what I’m charged with. And I accept that. You know, I’m competitive, we’re all competitive. So yeah, there is pressure and that pressure drives me.”
As Campbell explains it, the ultimate goal, beyond wins, is steady, incremental improvement. He wants to see a team better a month into the season than it was the opening week, and he wants his squad playing at their best to end the year. That’s how he’ll measure success.
But the season is still several months away. Right now, it’s about building the roster, and the Lions have been aggressive in reshaping things through the first two weeks of the league year. The quarterback swap, Matthew Stafford for Jared Goff, became official, they added defensive tackle Michael Brockers in a separate trade, cut multiple veterans and signed 10 free agents.
But outside of Goff and Brockers, two players who have been foundational pieces in Los Angeles in recent years, nearly every other player the Lions have added look to be stopgap solutions. Of the free agents the team inked, only running back Jamaal Williams signed for multi-seasons, and his two-year pact is essentially structured as a one-year prove-it deal with a team option.
It raises the reasonable question, how do you build a culture without the certainty of continuity? At this rate, the Lions could have similar roster turnover a year from now.
“You get these one-year guys and you build off of one-year guys and then they’re gone and then what do you do, right?” Campbell said. “I get that. I think the ultimate vision would be, even at the very least, you bring in these guys, and let’s just say they are all one year, hypothetically. Well, even there, you get the production out of them, but you get this workman mentality, this chip on your shoulder, this is how you win, this is how you build things, and they’ve installed that in some of these young players that are already here on this roster and the guys that you’re drafting.
“… I just think even at that, man, it just helps set the tone for where you’re trying to go and the way things are supposed to be done,” Campbell said. “And not only that, they appreciate the way that they’ve been treated even if they do move on. Because they know they were never lied to, they were told exactly what they were thought of, what we thought of them and where they go. That’s all you can ask for. You may not always like to hear the truth, one way or another, but you can always respect the truth.”
Being forthright with players is part of Campbell’s identity, molded by playing under Bill Parcells and being groomed by Sean Payton — a branch off Parcells’ coaching tree — the past five years.
Campbell emphasized the team isn’t making any promises to these new additions other than a chance to compete for playing time. But even with the more established players, like Goff and Brockers, down to the slew of veterans signed to one-year deals, there’s a theme Campbell has identified and loves.
“Probably the best thing about all of these guys we’ve signed is that I think they all got something to prove and they got a little bit of chip on their shoulder,” Campbell said. Whether it’s ‘I’m coming off an injury’ or you know, ‘They were trying to reduce my salary’ or ‘I’m a guy that they didn’t want anymore’ or ‘I’m a guy who they think is washed up,’ man, all these guys have something to prove and, man, so do we.
“Brad’s got something to prove, I’ve got something to prove, my staff has something to prove… (owner) Sheila (Ford Hamp)’s got something to prove,” Campbell said. “It’s been a little bit unorthodox, I guess you could call it, but that’s a good thing, man. We want hungry people here that want to be here.
“They all wanted to be here and want to win.”