Free pass for new regime has expired, time for Detroit Lions to show progress

Detroit Free Press

Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes had a free pass for the 2021 season, but 11 games into their tenure with the Detroit Lions, that pass has been revoked.

Not internally. It’s too early to say faith inside the walls in Allen Park has wavered in either of the men charged with turning the Lions into contenders. But public criticism continues to mount and I now sense widespread skepticism in a fan base that is fed up with the losing that has defined this franchise for years.

It’s premature to write off Campbell as coach and Holmes as general manager, but I understand the deluge of emails and social media messages I received during and after Thursday’s 16-14 loss to the Chicago Bears. I’ve said for months the Lions need wins — plural — as proof they are on the right path. And with six games left in this wretched season, there is no reason to believe victory is within their grasp.

Yes, this is a rebuild, and no one expected miracles going into the season. Hence, the free pass.

But even bad teams win games in the NFL — and occasionally beat pretty good ones — and an 0-for is a stain on everyone involved.

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On Thursday, the Lions let a winnable game against a bad Chicago Bears team slip out of their grasp with sloppy play — they committed 10 penalties and lost a fumble — conservative play-calling and tough-to-swallow coaching mistakes.

Campbell was in an impossible situation late in the game when he made the most egregious of those mistakes. The Bears were driving for the game-winning field goal with just under 2 minutes to play when the Lions, desperate to get the ball back, dialed up a zero blitz on third-and-9.

The Bears motioned David Montgomery into the backfield and brought tight end Cole Kmet close to the line of scrimmage to help with protection, and the Lions responded by checking to a Cover 2 defense, only several players did not get the call.

Thinking his defense was about to allow a touchdown, Campbell called a timeout just as the Bears were set to snap the ball. But because the Lions had just taken a timeout, and because Chicago had yet to run a play, the Lions were penalized for defensive delay of game.

That put Chicago in a more manageable third-and-4, and after the Bears converted against a soft Lions defense, they ran the final 90-plus seconds off the clock and sent Cairo Santos on for an easy kick.

Watching replays of the timeout sequence, I think the Lions might have gotten a defensive stop on third-and-9 even with the confusion in their back end. Tracy Walker was out of place at the line of scrimmage, but Amani Oruwariye and Josh Woods had a read on the dump off to Montgomery.

Regardless of his reasoning, Campbell’s double-timeout reinforced the belief by some that he is overmatched as head coach, much like Jim Schwartz throwing the challenge flag on Thanksgiving nine years ago cemented his reputation as a hot head unable to control his emotion at crucial times in games.

I like much of what Campbell has done as a coach. He is very good at dealing with people, and that’s a big part of the job. He exudes toughness and energy, both of which the Lions have historically lacked. And his aggressive approach on fourth downs early in the season was a welcome break from the norm.

But he needs to re-delegate offensive play calling, which he plans to do after the season, and his game management in recent weeks has been an about-face from the assertive approach that got him where he is.

The Lions have six games left to avoid the worst season in NFL history — yes, 0-16-1 is worse than 0-16. Doing so won’t totally swing popular opinion back Campbell’s way, but it would afford him more benefit of the doubt in what clearly is a multiyear rebuild.

Someone built this roster

As is the case with most GMs who avoid the spotlight, Holmes’ role in this disastrous season has been less scrutinized than Campbell’s, though he clearly shares in the blame. He inherited a mess from the previous regime and is still waiting on reinforcements to come help clean it up.

Knowing the Matthew Stafford trade was a fait accompli when he took over, Holmes’ biggest failing as GM in his 10 months on the job has been saddling his coaches with a dearth of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball.

Holmes skimped on receivers in free agency, signing Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman to one-year deals, and waited to address the position until Day 3 of the draft. Williams and Perriman are gone, having given the Lions a combined 39 offensive snaps this season, and while fourth-round pick Amon-Ra St. Brown looks like a keeper, the Lions are not built for the modern NFL.

Holmes must invest significant resources in the offense this offseason. I imagine good veteran receivers will be reluctant to come to Detroit without an enormous payday, considering the offense they’d be playing in and the Lions’ uncertainty at quarterback. But free agents are fool’s gold anyway, so Holmes’ best bet is to add a pass catcher with one of what should be three top-33 picks in the draft.

Nothing will change dramatically, of course, until the Lions change quarterbacks. But the reality is, that may be another year away.

As with Campbell, Holmes deserves the benefit of the doubt for now. First-round pick Penei Sewell looks like a future star, and the Lions have played without their best offensive and defensive players, Frank Ragnow and Romeo Okwara, most of the year.

Looking ahead to April’s draft, where the Lions are close to locking up the No. 1 overall pick, they should be able to address the quarterback position or find a pass rusher (Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux) at the top of the first round then focus on other needs. Along with receiver, the Lions’ other top needs are: a safety to pair with or replace pending free agent Tracy Walker, speed for their linebacking corps and more help at cornerback given Jeff Okudah’s uncertain future.

RB shelf life is … Swift

D’Andre Swift left Thursday’s game with a sprained shoulder, aggravating an injury he first suffered in a 33-carry performance Week 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

It would be easy to criticize the Lions for overusing their best offensive weapon, but I see things through a different lens.

Swift is a running back and running backs don’t last in the NFL. Smart teams draft them and use them and replace them every few years. That’s a cold approach, but that’s the reality of the league, and that’s part of the reason why I thought the Lions should have used Swift more, not less, in Week 11 against the Cleveland Browns.

If you want to win games, put the ball in your best players’ hands. You never know how long you’ll have them.

‘Do. Or do not. There is no try.’

One final note on the Lions’ conservative approach to offense, which Campbell defended after he called plays for the third straight game Thursday…

“There were so many things that we did early in this year to where disaster happens, it’s sack-fumble, it’s all this because we’re trying to be a little more aggressive,” Campbell said. “So maybe we could have, but I feel like at the end of the day, we threw it more than we ran it. You’re trying to do a few things and it’s just once you get in those holding calls and they’re just standing there looking at you, you’re trying to be smart about how you’re going to do it. You want to get yourself at that point in a third-and-manageable. Let’s just let’s find a way to get to third-and-7 and then when you don’t, now you’re sitting there, it’s third-and-a mile and it’s hard. I don’t regret that.”

Throwing short on third-and-mile wasn’t the issue Thursday, nor has it been all season. It’s throwing short of the sticks on third-and-4 (like Goff did on one 0-yard gain Thursday), and generally refusing to push the ball downfield.

Goff threw eight of his 25 passes at or behind the line of scrimmage Thursday for a grand total of 12 yards. That’s a low-risk, low-reward approach that helps explain why the Lions rank 31st in the NFL in scoring and passing offense.

For the season, the Lions have thrown 80 passes behind the line of scrimmage in 11 games. Their opponents, for comparison, have thrown 52 passes behind the line of scrimmage. Goff, in his 10 starts, has attempted 28 throws of at least 20 yards downfield, 12 fewer than his opponents in the same games.

Goff is not a good deep ball passer. He is 6-for-28 with two touchdowns on 20-plus-yard throws this season, which explains some of Campbell’s reluctance to open the playbook.

But it’s defeatist to say the Lions aren’t built to throw deep or dig themselves out of third-and-long situations, when there are times they barely try.

Campbell probably has six games left of calling plays before he gives those duties to assistant head coach Duce Staley or someone new next year. With nothing left to lose but a few more games, it would behoove everyone to stop playing scared.

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

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