Allen Park — Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell never asked for a free pass his first year at the helm, but given the state of the roster he inherited, many were content to grant him one by default.
But even after entering the season with the most modest of expectations, fan patience has been running a little thin with the team still winless heading into December. And criticism of Campbell has picked up even more since he took over the offensive play-calling duties, only to see the team average 13.3 points in the three games since.
For the most part, he’s remained insulated from that criticism. Still, there have been context clues, in the form of unsolicited messages of encouragement. And even if Campbell did know exactly what was being said about him and the team, he knows he has no viable counter to offer.
“That being said, it’s almost like I get the texts and I get the calls, ‘Hey, man, hang in there,'” Campbell said. “So the more that I get, the more I know there’s chatter out there. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be getting all these calls out the blue, or these texts.
“Look, as far as being warranted, when you don’t win a game, I should be getting criticized,” Campbell continued. “I don’t blame anybody for that. That’s the reality of it right now. I would love to be able to say that there’s something I can tell everybody that’s going to make everybody feel better, but as you guys know, it’s about winning. We haven’t done that yet.”
Tight end T.J. Hockenson said he stopped looking at social media after his rookie season and encourages his teammates to do the same. He said reading and hearing constant critique can impact the culture the team is trying to establish.
“I think if every guy gets bought into what’s going on in here and what we’re being told, you can go in the same direction,” Hockenson said. “But when guys are hearing different things like, ‘Why didn’t we do this? Why did we do this? Why’s this going on?’ That just puts thoughts in some guy’s head and hurts the culture, what we’re building or whatever. I just think guys need to get away from that and understand what’s going on in here and really care about what guys in here want from you.
“When you’re hearing things from everywhere, that just kind of fogs up what we’ve got going on in here,” Hockenson said.
As for Campbell, Hockenson said the coach has been consistent with his approach regardless of circumstance, which is something players appreciate.
“He’s a very upbeat person,” Hockenson said. “That’s the one thing good to have with a coach is someone that’s steady throughout, whether we’re winning or we’re losing.”
The Lions’ playoff hopes were dashed weeks ago, and with just six games to go, the team is still searching for its first victory. Getting over that hump takes priority over all else down the stretch, but Campbell is using the idea that misery loves company as another motivational tool for his team.
“The message is, you know, we’ve got six to go and we’re playing spoiler now,” Campbell said. “We’re trying to ruin peoples’ day is what we’re trying to do. …I think now it’s, man, how do we make these last six opponents kinda have to deal with what we’ve dealt with for the season? That’s the message.”
That starts this week, against the Minnesota Vikings, who are clinging to the final spot in the NFC playoff standings. The Lions also have the ability to impact the playoff hopes of Denver and the seeding of either Arizona or Green Bay, who are battling for the conference’s postseason bye.
That’s all well and good with Hockenson, but after never being in contention heading into the final month of the season during his career, he’d prefer to change the script.
“I don’t really care whose season it is or whose season it ends, I guess,” Hockenson said. “I want to win every game. I want to go through each week and know we had a shot to win, and not only have a shot, but follow through in the last quarter.
“I’ve been here for three years, and obviously each year, it’s been the same thing at the end of the year is spoil someone’s season. That’s great, but on the same hand, I want to win a few games.”
After the Lions were flagged for holding six times against the Bears last Thursday, Campbell was slow to offer his assessment without seeing the film, although he speculated fault wouldn’t entirely fall on the offensive line.
Following his tape study, Campbell noted blame for half of the six fell on the quarterback, for either holding on to the ball too long or moving in a way that caused his protection to break down.
Campbell also noted two of the infractions could be considered “ticky tack,” but that also provided him with his biggest teaching point.
“When they start getting called that way, you’ve gotta let off the gas,” Campbell said. “It’s gotta be perfect and you can’t finish. You gotta pull back and let him go. “…That’s the nature of the beast. Every game things happen and you’ve gotta be able to adjust. We have to adjust a lot quicker than that.”
While watching Sunday’s game between Minnesota and San Francisco, Campbell noticed the officiating at the line of scrimmage was far more liberal, which he prefers.
“Those are good games to be in, by the way, where they just let you play,” he said.