Allen Park — The Detroit Lions are in the throes of a rebuild.
And even though most everyone knew what was coming from the early days of new leadership, particularly after trading of quarterback Matthew Stafford, it hasn’t been any less painful or frustrating for a fan base that has seen its fair share of rebuilds that haven’t gone anywhere.
On the opposite sideline Sunday will be the Cincinnati Bengals, a franchise that has gone through its own share of historical struggles. Despite seven playoff appearances since 2005 — including a stretch of five straight from 2011-15 — the Bengals are the only team to have gone longer than the Lions without a postseason victory.
The Bengals also are in the midst of a rebuild, one maybe not as quickly acknowledged after they made a coaching change from Marvin Lewis to Zac Taylor in 2019. That said, after sinking to the bottom of the standings in Taylor’s first season, the Bengals appear to be finally emerging on the other side in 2021, starting 3-1, prior to dropping an overtime game to the Green Bay Packers last Sunday.
This week’s matchup against the Bengals should provide some optimism for Lions fans, as well as some lessons learned, both positive and negative, about how to best go about rebuilding a roster.
Pulling the band-aid off
The primary contrast between the Bengals and Lions is the early approach taken during Taylor and Dan Campbell’s tenures. Taylor’s start arguably more closely mirrored what the Lions attempted to do under previous head coach Matt Patricia, when it was perceived the coach inherited a group that was underachieving and tried to pull more out of that core by building around them.
It’s not that the Bengals were an old team when Taylor started. In fact, they were the NFL’s youngest roster the previous season, but they held on to many veteran pieces upon his arrival, including quarterback Andy Dalton, wide receiver A.J. Green and defensive tackle Geno Atkins, in the search of a quick turnaround.
Instead, like it happened in Detroit in Patricia’s first season, Cincinnati was worse in 2019 than the previous season. It didn’t help that Dalton, a long serviceable starter, turned in the worst performance of his career.
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The Lions, meanwhile, were more aggressive with their roster overhaul this offseason than the Bengals were in 2019, letting more than a dozen veterans walk in free-agency. That group included star receiver Kenny Golladay, former first-round pick Jarrad Davis and longtime kicker Matt Prater. The team also cut several high-priced, under-performing veterans, such as cornerbacks Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman.
Where the teams share common ground that first year is on the injury front. The Bengals lost Green and first-round pick Jonah Williams for the year before the season even began. And Cordy Glenn, another starter on the offensive line, didn’t play until Week 11 because of a concussion.
The Lions also have experienced the pain of losing several key pieces to injury with Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, Jeff Okudah, Romeo Okwara and Tyrell Williams all spending extensive time on the shelf.
In the first year of Taylor’s tenure, the Bengals were conservative spenders in free-agency, but have taken some big swings the past two offseasons.
In 2020, the franchise committed more than $200 million to contracts, which included the regrettable decision to slap the franchise tag on Green. Additionally, the team poured cap space into its defense, signing tackle D.J. Reader, cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Von Bell to lucrative multi-year deals.
The Bengals followed the same strategy ahead of the 2021 season, inking defensive end Trey Hendrickson and cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Mike Hilton to big contracts.
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Again, there are similarities to Detroit’s approach under Patricia. The franchise spent modestly his first year, before sprees in both 2019 and 2020, in an effort to plug roster holes with proven veterans.
What’s different is the Bengals’ spending is returning dividends. Through five games, they rank in the top 10 in DVOA, a play-by-play metric that measures the unit’s efficiency, while holding opponents to 20 points per game, good for eighth in the NFL. And Reader, Awuzie, Bell and Hendrickson have been key pieces in that turnaround.
In the early stages of the Campbell era, we can’t draw much from one year, but the initial signing period was clearly focused on the short-term play. Among the more than a dozen new signings, only running back Jamaal Williams received a contract for longer than one season. More significant resources have been committed to retaining their own, locking up young stars Okwara and Ragnow.
Patience with coaches
With Taylor, the Bengals pieced together a relatively inexperienced staff in relation to their positions. Not only was he a first-time head coach at 35, he brought on coordinators who were getting their first full-time opportunities in those roles.
Brian Callahan was named the offensive coordinator after serving as a quarterbacks coach with the Raiders and Lions the previous three seasons, while defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo had seven years experience coaching defensive backs in the NFL, with a brief interim run as defensive coordinator of the Dolphins in 2015. That opportunity came during Campbell’s time as the Dolphins interim head coach.
As you might imagine, there were plenty of calls for changes after the Bengals went 2-14 in Taylor’s first season and 4-11-1 in his second, but the coach stuck with his coordinators and the patience is paying off.
As noted, Anarumo’s unit is performing at a high level, while Cincinnati’s offense is just starting to find its footing with young quarterback Joe Burrow. That will eventually take us to the final point to the Bengals’ rise.
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But as the losses stack up for the Lions, they’ll inevitably face some of these same criticisms their counterparts did with the Bengals.
For all intents and purposes, this is Campbell’s first head-coaching job. And his coordinators are inexperienced play-callers, with Aaron Glenn being in the role for the first time and Anthony Lynn only having interim experience before serving as the Chargers head coach. And with young players in new schemes with inexperienced play-callers, the Lions have had predictable struggles. They’re banking on development and continuity to lead them through these valleys to future peaks.
The heart of nearly all good rebuilds in the NFL is rooted in successful drafting. Here, both the Lions and Bengals started off the same way, taking an offensive lineman with their first pick.
Cincinnati snagged Williams with the No. 11 pick in 2019, and after missing his rookie year with a shoulder injury, he’s looked like a foundational piece. The Lions, meanwhile, drafted Penei Sewell No. 7 overall. And despite some predictable rookie struggles, they similarly believe he’s a building block for their program.
The Bengals’ turnaround truly centers around their second draft class. The group is headlined by Burrow, but the team’s first four picks have had early success. Second-round wide receiver Tee Higgins has averaged more than 50 yards and scored eight times in 19 games. Third-round linebacker Logan Wilson looks like a star in the making in his first year as a starter. And fourth-rounder Akeem Davis-Gaither has been a solid contributor on both defense and special teams.
While it’s too early to say much about the 2021 class, for either team, the Bengals appear to have found another player with star potential in Ja’Marr Chase, the receiver they selected two spots ahead of Sewell in the first round. Chase has been one of the NFL’s most explosive playmakers to start this season with 23 receptions for 456 yards and five scores.
As things are currently tracking, the Lions figure to face their own quarterback decision next April. Jared Goff is better than Dalton, but not by a considerable margin, with career passer ratings of 91.7 and 87.5, respectively. Both are pocket passers, with a history of too many turnovers, and neither is a particularly aggressive downfield passer.
Of course, there’s no guarantee there will be a Burrow-esque talent in the 2022 NFL Draft class, and because general managers aren’t often afforded many misses with those top-five selections, the Lions can’t force it if there isn’t.
Regardless of whether the Lions draft a QB, Detroit’s ability to climb out of their hole will hinge on GM Brad Holmes hitting early and often in his drafts. Nothing will result in contention faster than finding key starters with star potential like the Bengals have the past couple years.