Dan Campbell is biggest reason to believe in Detroit Lions rebuild

Detroit Free Press

Dan Campbell is genuine. It’s one of his most endearing qualities as head coach.

There is no pretense about Campbell, no charade. What you see is who he is, and if you’ve followed the NFL long enough, you know for people in positions of power that isn’t always the case.

Campbell isn’t the first NFL coach to get emotional at a postgame news conference, like he did after Sunday’s heartbreaking 19-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

But the fact that he did, that he hurt so publicly for his players and a Detroit Lions organization that had a win wrenched from its grasp for the second time in three weeks, resonated in the locker room and with the fan base.

“I think we all kind of feel the same way that he does,” Lions quarterback Jared Goff said. “It’s hard. It’s hard to give everything you’ve got every week and to have moments of feeling like you won the game, then have it snatched from you. It’s tough. It’s as hard as it gets in this league is to do stuff like that, and then try to bounce back from it. I’ve said it every week, but we’ve got a resilient bunch who will bounce back and Dan’s our leader.”

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The Lions are 0-5 in the middle of October, one of two winless teams in the NFL along with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Their record is an outlier in a league built for parity, and their coaching staff is learning on the job.

Still, I can’t help but feel like the franchise is on the right path because of its leader.

Campbell has the Lions playing competitive despite a roster that was one of the worst in the league before it was ravaged by injury.

On Sunday, the Lions played without their two best offensive linemen, their defensive MVP, two of their top four cornerbacks and their No. 1 receiver. They lost their top receiver’s replacement to a shoulder injury in the first half, have a quarterback gift-wrapping turnovers to the other team, and are starting two undrafted rookies in a secondary that can’t cover a bed.

None of that makes being 0-5 OK. Wins are the only measure that matter.

But in the context of starting completely over in Year 1 of a multi-season rebuild, the Lions seem to be pouring a foundation that will serve them well in the future.

Twice during his postgame news conference, a glassy-eyed Campbell had to pause while answering a question to maintain his composure. When someone asked if it was hard to believe the Lions lost in dramatic fashion on a long field goal as time expired for the second time in three weeks — Sunday’s game was a facsimile of the Lions’ Week 3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, right down to the final score — or if that was part of life in the NFL, Campbell sniffled and said he had something else in mind.

“I try to just keep picturing in my head, because I know it’s coming is, we’re going to be on the winning side of these before long,” he said. “Hopefully sooner than later, but it’s coming. I just don’t know when, but it’s coming. When you play that way and fight that way and clean a couple of these little mishaps that have shot us in the foot, our days of being on the winning side of that are coming.”

The Lions have a lot of work to do to get there, and they need to find a long-term solution at quarterback to make it happen. But in Campbell, they do seem to have a leader capable of taking them where they want to go.

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Three more thoughts from Sunday

• People occasionally ask why I’m down on Goff. He turns 27 on Thursday. He played in a Super Bowl. He has the worst receiving corps in the NFL. And his rookie left tackle is allowing a sack per game while protecting his blind side.

All that is true, but so is this: Goff does not create enough plays to make up for his mistakes. In five games this season, he has seven turnovers. Even discounting the fumble he was charged with when Frank Ragnow prematurely snapped the ball off his leg, that’s a disturbing number for a quarterback who was brought in to help manage games.

The Lions, we all know, have virtually no margin for error, and yet Goff keeps giving points away. His past four turnovers have come in scoring territory, and he threw an interception earlier this year that the San Francisco 49ers returned for a touchdown.

Goff played one four-game stretch with the Los Angeles Rams last season where he committed 10 turnovers, so his ball security issues are nothing new. But they also have reinforced my belief the Lions badly need to find their quarterback of the future this offseason.

• Sticking with quarterbacks for a minute, leave it to the Lions to be trending towards a top-two pick in a draft that seems light on quarterback talent.

Spencer Rattler, once considered a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick, was benched in Oklahoma over the weekend, and Sam Howell continues to draw mixed reviews for a North Carolina team that is no lock to make a bowl game.

Howell doesn’t have much talent around him, so he still should hear his name called early next April. But I’m not sure how many regimes will feel comfortable pinning their futures to his development. Same goes for Malik Willis of Liberty, Matt Corral of Ole Miss, Desmond Ridder of Cincinnati and Carson Strong of Nevada, all of whom could be in the first-round mix come spring.

The real prize of the draft seems to remain Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux. He’d be a nice addition for the Lions — or any team. But this is still a quarterback league, and Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes need to find a good one before their free pass on having a subpar record expires.

• Seven different Lions rookies played at least 20 snaps Sunday, which underscores how much of a developmental year this is. I wonder, though, how much of that development will really matter.

The Lions are two or maybe three years away from contending, which means the vast of majority of their roster will be elsewhere by the time they start playing meaningful games.

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Ragnow will be here and T.J. Hockenson should be, too, so long as he wants to stay. Sewell, despite his recent struggles, remains a foundational piece of this rebuild. One of Taylor Decker or Jonah Jackson should stick, too, though given how hard it is to pay lucrative money to four offensive linemen — assuming Sewell, eventually, will be in line for a second deal — I’m not sure the Lions can keep both beyond 2023.

Julian Okwara has flashed enough ability as a pass rusher to think he might stick, but his brother Romeo’s contract expires after the 2023 season, and both the elder Okwara and Jeff Okudah have Achilles tendon injuries to overcome.

Among the rookies, Alim McNeill certainly looks like a keeper, and A.J. Parker has shown promise as a slot cornerback. Levi Onwuzurike is coming off his best game of his young career, though he has that college back injury to contend with. In reality, it’s far too early to tell with most of the class.

So yes, the Lions are laying the foundation this year for what they hope will be better days, but back to my point at the start of this column — most of their hope lies with the men in charge.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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