Here’s what early signs of success look like in Detroit Lions’ rebuild (Hint: Not wins)

Detroit Free Press

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After one game, where does the Detroit Lions’ rebuild stand?

Are we ready to throw a parade for this new regime? Or are we ready to throw these guys out the door?

Of course, I’m kidding. We should be calm and measured in our analysis of the team. So let’s wait until the bye week to start sharpening our hatchets.

Look, rebuilds are tough, especially in their early stages. It’s hard to know what to make of anything since the most obvious indicator of success is wins — something the Lions likely won’t have a lot of this season, and probably next.

So, even though it’s been one week, how can we judge the progress of this rebuild?

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It’s actually not that hard because the key to any rebuild is actually progress. And the truest way to judge progress is not only by how much a team moves forward, but also by how little it moves backward.

Believe it or not, the Lions have actually gotten their rebuild off on the right foot in this regard: They performed well in the few areas where most of us expected them to perform well.

Imagine that. A Lions team meeting expectations!

Yes, there are a lot more areas of the team that need fixing, and the Lions didn’t show a lot of promise in those areas. But in the nearly two decades I’ve covered the Lions — and several of their rebuilds — one of the key factors that stunted them was the failure to excel in areas of expected strength.

Rod Marinelli’s Tampa 2 defense was a flop. Mike Martz’s offense was a bust. Jim Caldwell never turned Matthew Stafford into Peyton Manning, or even Joe Flacco (Super Bowl version only, of course). And so many high draft picks — Jahvid Best, Nick Fairley, Eric Ebron, Jarrad Davis, Teez Tabor and Jahlani Tavai — never panned out.

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On and on. One step forward, two steps back.

But that wasn’t the case for the Lions last week; they did well in the three facets of the game they were expected to excel in: offensive line, run game and tight end T.J. Hockenson picking up where he left off as a Pro Bowler last season.

Sure, the results weren’t there in a 41-33 loss to the San Francisco 49ers that actually didn’t feel as close as the final score indicated. But how did you felt about the Lions on Sunday night? Or Monday morning? Were you completely without hope?

Now imagine if Hockenson had been shut down, or had several drops, instead of catching eight passes for 97 yards.

Or if the offensive line had been steamrolled, instead of holding Nick Bosa and his buddies in check (even without Taylor Decker).

What if D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams hadn’t found any holes and the run game had been ineffective?

I’ll tell you what if. Even if one of those three things had happened, there would be something resembling panic in Allen Park this week. Excuses and explanations would be in order. We would be questioning why these supposed strengths hadn’t achieved their advertised potency.

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Instead, there has been a calm tenor in Allen Park. No one’s been lambasted. Critics not named Steve Smith haven’t been calling out the Lions on much of anything.

This is because the Lions largely did what they were supposed to do. On Thursday, I asked coach Dan Campbell how important it was for the team to be able to rely on its areas of strength while the whole team strives to improve this season.

“I think it’s really important because, look, those are the guys right now that we know can produce for us, or the unit that can produce for us,” he said. “They give us the best chance of success, while maybe sometimes masking some of your weaknesses.

“So, for example, our offensive line is a strength. T.J. is a strength. Swifty is a strength. To be able to try to put those guys in position, our offensive line and somewhat control the football would help us. That would certainly behoove us this week if we could. Now, that doesn’t mean that we’re just going to run it 50 times, but we need to find a way to possess the ball, run and pass, if you will.”

It would have been nice if Jeff Okudah and the secondary had played better. It would have been great if Jared Goff had been more accurate and quicker with his reads early in the game.

Everyone expects it to be extremely hard for the Lions in Green Bay on Monday night. And maybe these areas of strength won’t be as strong for every game this season.

But if you want to accurately measure the progress the Lions make against the Packers, don’t bother with the scoreboard. Look at what their best players and their best units are doing on every series. While they may not be leaping in Lambeau, you can count anything that isn’t a step backward as progress for these Lions.

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

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