Niyo: Can Lions’ rebrand stand glare of prime-time’s bright lights?

Detroit News

Green Bay, Wis. — First impressions matter. But so do seconds and thirds, really, especially if you’re planning on sticking around.

The Lions, of all teams, should understand that by now. And for a franchise that is once again trying to rebrand itself as something other than what it has been for far too long, this trip to Lambeau Field for a “Monday Night Football” clash with the Green Bay Packers is an opportunity to make a statement, I suppose.

Last week’s season-opening loss to San Francisco was one thing. But Monday night’s game against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers is something else altogether. It’s a divisional matchup on the road, but it’s also a prime-time showcase for everything Dan Campbell is selling as the Lions’ new head coach.

That means nothing when it comes to Monday night’s game plan — a little rain in the forecast probably won’t hurt the run-oriented Lions, by the way — and it’s far too early for any sort of referendum on the program Campbell and first-year general manager Brad Holmes are trying to build in Detroit. But fair or not, it will be a frame of reference for how they’ll be received and perceived going forward.

For now, Campbell’s a bit of a caricature outside of Detroit, an overcaffeinated tough guy talking about biting kneecaps and such. Yet while that introductory message was intended solely for the Lions’ long-suffering fanbase, what happens Monday night is what everyone else will remember for quite some time.

The Lions, as you may have noticed, don’t get many of these games. The NFL schedule-makers gave the Packers five prime-time games this season, while the Lions received just one. In fact, Detroit is one of only four teams — Carolina, Cincinnati and Jacksonville are the others — to have just one prime-time kickoff in each of the last three seasons.

That doesn’t include their traditional Thanksgiving Day game in Detroit. But aside from some late-window West Coast kickoffs, this will be it when it comes to marquee TV games for the Lions this season.

Maybe that’s a good thing for a team that’s in the early stages of a rebuild, and for a franchise that hasn’t fared very well under the bright lights.

The Lions went a decade between Monday Night Football appearances before making a triumphant return in 2011 with a raucous win over the Bears at Ford Field. But since then, they’ve played 11 MNF games and won just four, all of them under Jim Caldwell. They’re 6-18 in all prime-time games over the last decade, and 11-23 if you include Thanksgiving games.

In science class, that’s how a hypothesis becomes a theory. In the NFL, and specifically in Detroit, it’s just one more reason the coaching carousel keeps spinning.

Matt Patricia’s debut was a season-opening debacle in prime time: an ominous 48-17 loss to the Jets. He did beat his mentor, Bill Belichick, in a Sunday night game a couple of weeks later. But Patricia’s only other Monday night appearance was the controversial 23-22 loss at Lambeau that was best remembered for questionable penalties called on Trey Flowers in the fourth quarter. In some ways, that Lambeau loss was the beginning of the end for Patricia and his general manager, Bob Quinn.

Likewise, Jim Schwartz’s tenure in Detroit effectively ended with an 18-16 loss to Baltimore on Monday Night Football. Even Caldwell, for all his relative success here, struggled to recover after a home loss to the Steelers in a nationally-televised Sunday night game.

This is only the beginning for Campbell, obviously. But a respectable showing against the Packers — to say nothing of a victory as a double-digit underdog — would provide some early validation.

“Certainly, this will be a tough opponent,” Campbell said. “They’ve been kind of the gold standard in this division for a long time, and rightfully so.”

The Packers have won the NFC North in seven of the last nine seasons, and they’ve won 14 division titles since the Lions’ last did it in 1993. They’ve also gone 28-8 the last two seasons, with two trips to the NFC championship game.

But after an offseason spent wondering whether Rodgers would ever play another game for the Packers, the team got routed by New Orleans, 38-3, in Week 1. Now they’re back home desperate to make a statement of their own, though their famously relaxed quarterback downplayed that angst angle this week.

“If we’re starting to freak out after one week,” Rodgers said, “we’re in big trouble.”

Still, Green Bay hadn’t lost a season opener since 2014, and the Packers haven’t started a season 0-2 since 2006, when Brett Favre was still the starting quarterback. So the Lions certainly could cause a little trouble here, if they’re up to the challenge.

“I know this: New Orleans kicked the hornets’ nest,” Campbell said. “So, we’re going to get everything they’ve got and we have to assume we’re going to get their ‘A’-game.”

And given the Lions’ track record under the lights, that’s just one more reason why this can’t just be a game for the Lions. Not if they want to be taken seriously anytime soon, that is.

Primetime pitfalls

The Lions are 9-25 in primetime and Thanksgiving in the last 10 seasons, dating to their return to Monday Night Football in 2011 after a 10-year absence.

MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL (5-7)

Oct. 10, 2011: (at) Lions 24, Bears 13

Oct. 22, 2012: (at) Bears 13, Lions 7

* Dec. 22, 2012: Falcons 31, (at) Lions 18

Dec. 16, 2013: Ravens 18, (at) Lions 16

Sept. 8, 2014: (at) Lions 35, Giants 14

Oct. 5, 2015: (at) Seahawks 13, Lions 10

Dec. 21, 2015: Lions 35, (at) Saints 27

Dec. 26, 2016: (at) Cowboys 42, Lions 21

Sept. 18, 2017: Lions 24, (at) Giants 10

Nov. 6, 2017: Lions 30, (at) Packers 17

Sept. 10, 2018: Jets 48, (at) Lions 17

Oct. 14, 2019: (at) Packers 23, Lions 22

* Saturday night

SUNDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL (1-8)

Dec. 4, 2011: (at) Saints 31, Lions 17

Jan. 7, 2012 (playoffs): Saints 45, (at) Lions 28

Sept. 16, 2012: (at) 49ers 27, Lions 19

Dec. 9, 2012: (at) Packers 27, Lions 20

Sept. 27, 2015: Broncos 24, (at) Lions 12

Sept. 25, 2016: (at) Packers 34, Lions 27

Jan. 7, 2017 (playoffs): (at) Seahawks 26, Lions 6

Oct. 29, 2017: Steelers 20, (at) Lions 15

Sept. 23, 2018: (at) Lions 26, Patriots 10

THURS./SAT NIGHT NFL NETWORK GAMES (1-2)

Dec. 3, 2015: Packers 27, (at) Lions 23

Dec. 16, 2017: (at) Lions 20, Bears 10

Dec. 26, 2020: Buccaneers 47, (at) Lions 7

THANKSGIVING (4-6)

Nov. 24, 2011: Packers 27, (at) Lions 15

Nov. 22, 2012: Texans 34, (at) Lions 31

Nov. 27, 2013: (at) Lions 40, Packers 10

Nov. 27, 2014: (at) Lions 34, Bears 17

Nov. 26, 2015: (at) Lions 45, Eagles 14

Nov. 24, 2016: (at) Lions 16, Vikings 13

Nov. 23, 2017: Vikings 30, (at) Lions 23

Nov. 22, 2018: Bears 23, (at) Lions 18

Nov. 28, 2019: Bears 24, (at) Lions 20

Nov. 26, 2020: Texans 41, (at) Lions 25

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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