It started with a massive roll of the dice, and 13 years later came another shocking move.
Campbell called the Packers “the standard in the division” at his introductory news conference in January, and referred to them as “the gold standard” while preparing for his first trip to Lambeau Field as Detroit Lions coach last week.
“I mean, let’s call it what it is,” Campbell said in January. “Those guys are finding ways to win, they’ve been successful, and I think that kind of starts there because it’s in the division, man. How do we get to where they’re at? That’s where we want to get, right? We want to be competing for the division championship every year. If we’re not shooting for that then what are we doing? And then once you become a division winner, right, now you’re starting to talk about the next level.”
The Lions have not been in the next-level discussion for a long time, since the year before the Packers’ reign of excellence began.
In 1991, the Lions were trending towards being the team to beat in the old NFC Central. They won 12 games and the division, and had the best running back in football, then watched as the Packers – a franchise mired in two decades of mediocrity – passed them and just about everyone else by.
Since 1992, Green Bay has made 21 playoff appearances – tied with the New England Patriots for most in the NFL in that span – won 15 division titles, two Super Bowls and had four losing seasons.
The Lions have made eight playoff trips, won one division title (in 1993), and have 19 losing records in the past 29 years.
The Packers’ success has been predicated on three pillars the Lions are trying to duplicate: Finding and developing great players; having stability in important areas of the organization; and adhering to a standard of excellence that can’t be ignored.
It’s no accident the Packers’ run of greatness started after they acquired quarterback Brett Favre in a bold move by a new general manager after the 1991 season.
Ron Wolf, who was hired in December that year, traded a first-round pick to the Atlanta Falcons for Favre. He barely played as a rookie and had a concerning hip injury from college that nearly derailed the trade, but Wolf gambled on his greatness and, in time, was able to surround the quarterback with a Super Bowl-worthy cast.
As iconic as Favre was, the Packers did not flinch at drafting his replacement in 2005, when Aaron Rodgers slipped to the 24th pick of the first round. The move was initially unpopular and unfruitful: Rodgers spent three seasons on the bench before taking over as starter. But four MVP seasons later, Rodgers is on his way to wearing his gold jacket, joining Favre.
Campbell said elite quarterback play has “certainly” been a big part of Green Bay’s success, and that greatness has translated to other positions. Packers third-year coach Matt LaFleur offered a similar theory for his organization’s prolonged dominance.
“You have to have great players in this league and I say that kind of tongue in cheek, but there’s a lot of truth to that,” he said. “But also, just being consistent, having high standards, and people believing in that and upholding those standards. I think there’s nothing more powerful than when the players uphold the standard and kind of set it for you. I think we got a great locker room here that takes that to heart.”
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LaFleur is the Packers’ fifth full-time head coach since Rodgers came aboard, and three of his predecessors lasted at least six years. The Steelers, famously, have had three head coaches since 1969. In New England, Bill Belichick has called the shots since 2000.
The Lions have changed coaches, on average, every three years since Favre joined the NFC Central, and while those moves were made largely for the right reasons, their instability shows either a concerning lack of ability to identify the right leaders, a lack of acumen by the people picking those leaders, or both.
It’s true, the Lions have had ownership issues in recent years. William Clay Ford was reclusive in his later years as owner, leaving the team to be run largely by his son, Bill.
When Ford died in 2014, his wife, Martha Firestone Ford, took over as owner and immediately brought in a team president in Rod Wood, who had no ties to the NFL. Their inexperience showed with important decisions early on – firing Martin Mayhew and Tom Lewand midseason, then blindly trusting Ernie Accorsi to lead their GM search while encouraging Mayhew’s replacement to keep the head coach in place – as they groomed Ford’s daughter, Sheila Ford Hamp, to run the team.
Hamp officially took over as owner in the summer of 2020, and has earned praise for how she has handled the job.
Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, who played for and coached with one of the NFL’s best franchises of the past 15 years, the New Orleans Saints, said having the right top-down leadership in place is as important to sustainable success as the players on the field.
“It always starts from up top,” Glenn said. “They set the standard, they set the philosophy of how the organization’s going to be. And I firmly believe this with every part of me, it’s when the top’s on point, and when there’s an alignment between the top, between ownership, head coach, GM, coaching staff, personnel, you have no choice but to come down to the players. So culture starts here, and then when the players see that, they have no choice but to fall in line.”
The Lions lost their opener to the San Francisco 49ers, 41-33, and while they drew praise for a late-game comeback after falling behind four touchdowns in the third quarter, Campbell is weary of his team getting too high off that praise.
“I think for us, it’s about, we have to create that attitude,” Campbell said. “We cannot go numb to losing and to those things that sting. You can’t accept when, even if you have a chance at the end of the game, you don’t win it. There’s small victories with what happened with us, but it also should taste awful and I think our guys are going to respond to that.”
Losing has become habitual for the Lions, who have one playoff win in the past 67 years.
The Packers have failed to make the playoffs in back-to-back seasons three times since they traded for Favre, and at some point during each instance, fired their coach.
For Campbell, first-year general manager Brad Holmes and the rest of the organization, there is a fine line to walk this fall between tolerating losing and the natural ebbs and flows of a rebuild.
The Packers won nine games but missed the playoffs in Favre’s first season in Green Bay, then needed three more years to win the division. The Patriots were not a superpower until they stumbled into Tom Brady as their quarterback; Bill Belichick went 5-11 in his first year as Patriots coach. And while the Steelers won big in Ben Roethlisberger’s first season, they had a veteran roster and their own Hall of Fame head coach.
“When things come up that you weren’t good enough at and those are because of some of your young players that made a mistake, well, the next week, if those young players did not make those same mistakes twice, but maybe they made a couple of different ones, or whatever, at least you’re X-ing it out,” Campbell told the Free Press in training camp. “But if we got a bunch of young guys and we’re out there and it’s the same crap coming up over and over, we’re going nowhere. We’re spinning our wheels. So I think relative to knowing some of those things, and just being aware of it, I think you got to take it with a grain of salt a little bit.”
The Packers have shown signs of slipping from their perch atop the NFC North, which could leave room for the Lions to ascend to the throne.
Rodgers suffered his worst loss as quarterback in last week’s 38-3 defeat to the Saints, and after a tumultuous offseason could be down to his final season in Green Bay. The Packers drafted a potential replacement in Jordan Love in 2020, but no one has seen enough of Love to know if he can carry the baton for another decade-plus.
Whatever becomes of Love, the Lions have plenty of their own issues to sort out, though Glenn insists the right hierarchy is in place.
“You talk about our organization right now, I think we have great, great ownership,” he said. “Listen, I don’t know what happened with the other coaching staff, but I do know this: Brad, Dan and ownership are in alignment. So that’s the making of a great organization.”
Even if owner, GM and coach truly are on the same page, the Lions need to replenish their thin roster and find their Favre, Rodgers, Brady or Roethlisberger to build around.
NFL teams can win without a great signal caller: The Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl four years ago with journeyman Nick Foles as their postseason starter. But achieving sustained success takes more.
Jared Goff appears to be a placeholder at the position, though Campbell told the Free Press in August, “I’m a Goff fan.”
Campbell is trying to hold his players to the standard of excellence he has seen the Packers achieve from afar. Green Bay’s run is impressive, but at some point it’s bound to come to an end.
“I think they’ve done a good a job drafting, I think they got a taste of success and know what it’s supposed to look like, how it’s supposed to look, a belief,” Campbell said. “Year in, year out, they have a chance at winning a Super Bowl because of that.”