Why ‘rogue ninja’ Jamaal Williams promised Detroit Lions fans a mighty running game

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams made two bold statements Thursday.

The first was with his fashion. Namely, the mirror-like visor he wore as a headband. He asked if anyone in the audience at Ford Field knew what it was.

A few people raised their hands sheepishly, maybe a little worried Williams would make them explain he was sporting a forehead protector worn by ninjas in the “Naruto” anime series.

“But the iron in it pretty much means like I’m a rogue ninja,” Williams said, “know what I mean?”

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Judging by the silent reactions, the several dozen people gathered for the Lions’ annual kickoff event most certainly did not know what Williams meant.

If you’ve never heard Williams’s high-octane patter, it can be a lot to absorb. It’s like trying to catch a kid driving a bumper car after he’s downed a six-pack of Mountain Dew.

Then Williams made his second bold statement. This one everyone understood and wholeheartedly embraced because they’ve been waiting so long for it.

The Lions, Williams said, are going to run the ball. A lot.

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“How can I explain this?” he said, his broad smile barely matching his bubbling enthusiasm. “I can’t wait. Aw, I can’t wait to get to all the juice. Y’all gonna love it.”

Quarterback Jared Goff sat next to Williams, soaking it in, nodding and smiling.

“Y’all gonna wish we — sorry, Goff, nothing personal — you’re going to wish we would run the ball every play.”

Goff couldn’t get enough. He completely endorsed Williams’ proclamation that might boost the Lions’ sorry ground game, which ranked 30th among 32 teams last season.

“I’m excited that he’s saying that,” Goff said. “I’ll hand it off all day long if we score points. It makes no difference to me.”

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Ever since Barry Sanders retired — and took the Lions’ run game with him — the offense has rarely taken off on the ground. In the NFL, the run game is the start of everything on offense. Goff was at his most effective with the Los Angeles Rams when he had a healthy Todd Gurley in the backfield.

“But no doubt,” Goff said, “if we can run the ball like we hope to this year it opens up the play-action game, opens up the drop-back passing game. Ultimately, it opens up every part of our offense, screen, keepers, everything.

“It takes a little pressure off the guys up front as well. So running the ball is what you want to establish, especially early on in the season.”

Offensive linemen Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow were seated next to Williams and rushed to chime in. Decker said defensive linemen tend to play the run game on the way to doing what they truly prefer, which is rushing the passer.

“But if you can control the game,” Decker said, “and make them play the run and just give them body blows the whole day, man it’s the best.”

One of the themes of Thursday’s event, hosted by the Detroit Economic Club, was all the newness for the Lions this season. New regime, new players and a new year that will allow fans to return to games at Ford Field.

It was telling how much newness there is when you consider the Lions’ roster itself —Decker, starting his sixth year, is the longest-tenured Lion on the team. With all that newness comes hope. Maybe for this season, maybe for another season down the road.

No one on Thursday was talking about playoffs or a division title. But they were talking about hope for the future. In a moment of honesty, coach Dan Campbell said he has thought a lot about the future and specifically what it would mean if he became the first coach in more than 60 years to lead the Lions to a championship.

“If you haven’t thought about that,” he said, “then you’re not where you’re supposed to be. And yeah, I have, because you’ve got to have an end game, you’ve got to have a vision to where you want to go and work backwards from there. And so, yes I have.

“I belong here. I know I belong here. This city embodies what I’m about, which is grit and that’s what our team is going to be.”

You can’t go wrong with grit — or rogue ninjas who can run the ball.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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