Allen Park — Nobody knows, not for sure. Nobody knows if Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell are the history-busting, culture-cultivating duo they aim to be, or seem to be. Nobody knows if Jared Goff is a decent quarterback who went along for a Super Bowl ride in Los Angeles, or an underrated quarterback who needs someone to believe in him.
After the misery comes the mystery. The roster is nearly 50% overhauled, the coaching staff is completely new, the first-round pick, Penei Sewell, hasn’t played a real football game in two years. You can say very few things with certainty about the Lions in 2021: They have an outstanding tight end in T.J. Hockenson and a promising offensive line that appears capable of delivering a legitimate running game.
Beyond that, nobody knows much, except this: They won’t win many games. That’s not a cheap shot or a rich take. Along with the Texans and Jets, the Lions are pegged for a bottom-three finish in the NFL, which would land them a top-three draft pick. In the grand scheme, that’s not the worst outcome, although nobody wants to hear it. And nobody is required to believe it, either.
The best thing about the Lions also happens to be the roughest thing about the Lions. They have a lot of chippy players with plenty to prove, and by definition, that means they haven’t proven much.
“That is our DNA,” Campbell said. “I don’t think it’s any secret that nobody expects us to do much. So yeah, that’s part of us, but that’s just lip service. What the hell does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything if we don’t go out and do our job.”
I’ve pegged the Lions at 4-13, and nothing in the preseason changed my mind. But I also understand the nature of NFL parity and sudden turnarounds, even if it almost always eludes the Lions. So if I squint, I can see a path to, gulp, 6-11, mainly because of two areas — the offensive line, led by center Frank Ragnow, and the commitment to an aggressive defense under Aaron Glenn that we never, ever saw under the Previous Regime That Shall No Longer Be Spoken Of.
When Glenn began watching tape of the 2020 Lions, who finished 5-11, one thing struck him.
“When you look at the players, they looked confused, I think with no confidence,” Glenn said shortly after being hired. “What we have to do is change that narrative of their thinking. Our No. 1 job is to get the players playing fast, get them confident and let those guys let it loose.”
Every new regime has a fresh plan and Lions fans should proceed with the requisite caution. Perhaps the most positive angle is, everyone pretty much arrived together — the front office, the GM, the coach, the quarterback, half the roster. They have no choice but to work together because nothing is tugging them in a different direction.
Matthew Stafford was a fine player for 12 seasons but everything was built around him. Then Matt Patricia came in and made it all about himself and his defensive scheme. You listen to Holmes and Campbell talk, and see the type of players they add, and there’s little doubt they’re on the same page of a thick, tattered book.
“I would say working through it with Dan, just because we’re cut from the same cloth and we see things eye-to-eye, it was a very seamless process,” Holmes said. “We might have had some longer discussions on maybe two to three guys. But again, I don’t view disagreement as a negative. As we go through this with the ego removed and our intuition along the way, it’s been an easy process.”
That was the main thing owner Sheila Ford Hamp craved. Holmes and Campbell are open, engaging and relentlessly optimistic. So is the coaching staff, dotted with respected guys such as Glenn and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, as well as relatable young assistants. Of course, it doesn’t mean diddly (football term) if they don’t have the right players and call the right plays.
This feels as different as any new start we’ve seen with the Lions, right from Campbell’s rollicking opening news conference and his now-legendary vow that the Lions are going “bite a kneecap off.” Lost in the colorful taunt was the tone, that the days of being passive and patient — on defense and offense — had to end.
How quickly can that be erased? A lot depends on Goff, who declines to take shots at Rams coach Sean McVay, although he’s certainly entitled to do so. McVay dumped his quarterback two seasons after reaching the Super Bowl. Goff was 42-20 as a starter with the Rams since 2017, yet gets virtually no credit for it. As much as a laid-back Californian can be, Goff is fired up, and he should be.
The dominant preseason NFL storyline was how the Rams dramatically upgraded by acquiring Matthew Stafford, who merely needs McVay’s magical touch to win multiple playoff games, apparently. Goff, meanwhile, will try to show he’s more than a place-holder, and must do it with his primary pass-catchers being a tight end (Hockenson), a running back (D’Andre Swift) and unheralded receivers named Trinity, Amon-Ra and Kalif.
Goff is only 26 and has won two playoff games, two more than Stafford. He’s not under immense outside pressure because the Lions landed two first-round picks in the trade and probably will draft a quarterback. In a way, Goff is in a no-lose situation, which should not be confused with a no-win situation. My guess is, he’ll be more productive than observers expect.
“Every year there are teams that were in the playoffs last year that aren’t,” Goff said. “Why not us? Why can’t we be the one that wasn’t in last year that is this year?”
Why can’t they? The list is long, with the second-youngest roster in the league and no game-changing playmakers at receiver or on defense.
Why could they be? Well, the defense finished last in yards (419) and points (32.4) allowed per game, so it can’t be worse. By most accounts, cornerback Jeff Okudah is poised for a bounceback, and the unit was bolstered by acquisitions (end Michael Brockers) and high draft picks (Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike).
When I asked Holmes what this team’s strength might be, he noted three positions — offensive line, running back (Jamaal Williams a key addition) and defensive line. If the D-line actually delivers, linebackers Trey Flowers, Julian Okwara and perhaps rookie Derrick Barnes could bag their share of sacks.
“I love where we’re at upfront,” Holmes said. “We knew we would be relatively deep there. Obviously, with how quickly Alim McNeill developed, how Levi just kept getting better each week and then each game it showed up. When you draft these guys and they’re rookies, it’s like you hope that they can contribute, but you don’t know how quickly they’ll get acclimated.”
McNeill is slated to start at nose tackle against the 49ers Sunday, and plenty of rookies will play. For all the feel-good connectivity, collaboration and communication, the Unknowns far outweigh the Knowns.
It’ll take a lot of unfulfilled personal expectations to raise team expectations, and it’d be a surprise if they surprised us. If nothing else, a cloud has been lifted and the narrative has changed. We don’t know where this is headed or how long it’ll take to get there, but in the early stages, it feels like a better direction.