Why Detroit Lions have a brighter future than Chicago Bears, Minnesota Vikings

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions clinched their fourth straight last-place finish in the NFC North with Sunday’s 20-16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, but as the 2021 season nears its end, the Lions seem better-positioned for future success than two of their three division rivals.

The Green Bay Packers remain the class of the NFC North and will be until Aaron Rodgers retires or at least is done playing home games  in the state of Wisconsin.

Rodgers is having another MVP-caliber season and the Packers are cruising toward the No. 1 seed in the NFC. They can win different ways on offense, they create enough turnovers to overcome their flaws on defense and they have one of the best coaches in football in Matt LaFleur.

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After the Packers, though, the NFC North is a depository for mediocre football.

The Minnesota Vikings are in the playoff hunt with two games left only because someone has to fill the sixth and seventh seeds in the top-heavy NFC. The Vikings could change coaches and general managers this offseason, and even if Mike Zimmer and Rick Spielman stay, they don’t have much of a core to build around.

Kirk Cousins is Jared Goff. The defense is aging. And their best player, Dalvin Cook, is a running back.

The Vikings are stuck in the NFL’s middle class with no path to legitimate contention, exactly the lot the Lions hoped to avoid by mounting a full-scale rebuild.

The Chicago Bears are worse off than the Vikings, with the exception of having a rookie quarterback in Justin Fields who still has a world of development ahead. The Bears have a bottom-third-of-the-NFL roster and almost certainly will be undergoing major changes this offseason.

Matt Nagy’s days as head coach appear numbered. Ryan Pace’s future as GM could be, too. And outside of Fields, the Bears are light on players for their nucleus.

The Lions have been worse than the Vikings and Bears on the field this season, but they are ahead of both when it comes to their rebuild. The Lions have a bona fide offensive line to build around and four first-round picks in the next two drafts (compared to two for the Vikings and one for the Bears).

I’ve said from Day 1, I don’t know if Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes will be successful in their jobs, but they have laid out a clear vision for this organization, one that’s taken shape on the field the past seven weeks.

The Lions want to beat people up in the trenches and have the personnel, at least on offense, to do so. They should nab a pass-rusher (or two) in this year’s draft, which will help move the defense in the same direction, and Campbell’s strength as a leader and motivator is unquestioned.

Ultimately, quarterback remains the most important ingredient for sustainable long-term success in the NFL, and the Lions, Bears and Vikings (and depending on your definition of long-term, even the Packers) still have much to figure out in that regard.

But with a new year and new offseason almost upon us, the Lions are at least ahead of a couple of their division rivals in something.

Blast from the past

No ex-Lions head coach has been hired to coach another NFL team after he left Detroit, but NFL Network reported Sunday former Lions boss Jim Caldwell is a candidate for the vacant Jacksonville Jaguars job.

I don’t know how serious the Jaguars’ interest is in Caldwell, who turns 67 in January and has not had a full-time coaching gig since he was fired by the Lions after the 2017 season. But I do know Caldwell would garner instant respect in the locker room, something Urban Meyer clearly lacked.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and ex-Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson were mentioned in the same report as Caldwell, and both make sense as offensive-minded candidates for a team pinning its hopes to rookie quarterback Trevor Lawrence.

Pederson won a Super Bowl with the Eagles and Leftwich starred as a player in Jacksonville and won a ring as an assistant coach in Tampa last season. New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is another assistant who should get consideration, given what he’s done with Mac Jones.

Caldwell’s candidacy may depend on who he’d bring along as offensive coordinator, but one of these days the streak of Lions coaches being unemployable as head coaches again will be snapped.

In line for a promotion?

I’ve written about Ben Johnson’s future as an offensive coordinator plenty in recent weeks, but there’s one other coach on staff who I think has the chance for a promotion in the near future: Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.

I doubt an NFL team will hire Glenn this cycle because convincing a fan base your next leader is coming from a two- or three-win team is a tough sell. But Glenn has the chops to be a head coach in the NFL soon.

He’s a former player with a quality control assistant’s work ethic who has done good things with limited defensive talent this year. Glenn is widely respected in the Lions locker room and in football circles; he interviewed for the New York Jets head coaching job last season. If the Lions win a few games next season, expect Glenn to emerge as a hot interview.

Never too early to look ahead

Next year’s schedule is almost set, and frankly it sets the Lions up to be a Vikings-type team that wins seven or eight games but never strikes anyone as a legitimate playoff contender while doing so.

Along with their regular NFC North slate, the Lions play games next season against the NFC East (at the Cowboys and the Giants, home against the Eagles and Washington) and AFC East (at the Patriots and the Jets, home against the Bills and Dolphins), have crossover games against the Seattle Seahawks (at Ford Field) and likely the Carolina Panthers (at Carolina), and will host the Jaguars in their ninth home game.

That’s an extremely mild slate compared to this season’s gauntlet through the NFC West and AFC North, arguably the two best divisions in football. The Packers, Cowboys, Patriots and Bills are the only upper-echelon teams on the schedule, while the Eagles (run the football) and Washington (rush the passer) potentially do something important at an elite level. The Giants, Jets, Jaguars and Panthers are hopeless, among the worst teams in the NFL, and the schedule is light on difference-making quarterbacks.

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The Lions should take a big step forward in 2022, but won’t have their true prove-it year till 2023.

Road trip!

One other scheduling thought: The Lions should volunteer to play their ninth home game internationally next season.

Under the new 17-game format, each team must play at least one home game abroad every eight years, and now seems like as good a time as any for the Lions to do so. No one is going to games at Ford Field anyway — the Lions played in front of their smallest crowd (45,211) since 2009 two Sundays ago against the Arizona Cardinals — and if the Lions really are on a path to contention, it’s better to give up a home game now than when the games become more meaningful.

Maybe the Lions need the home gate more than I realize after COVID-19 destroyed the 2020 season and given the light crowds this year. But a game against the Bills, Dolphins or Jaguars is exactly the kind of middling matchup that seems suited for overseas.

For what it’s worth, the Lions were slated to play the Jaguars in London last year, before the pandemic struck, though that would have been a Jacksonville home game. And the Dolphins and Jaguars (plus the Bears, Vikings and Jets) were given territorial marketing rights by the NFL in the United Kingdom earlier this year.

Just go for it

Since Dan Campbell’s fourth-down decision making is in the news again, I figured I’d close by sharing an interesting story Kevin Clark of The Ringer wrote two years ago about the rise in fourth-down conversion attempts.

As a general rule, per the story, analytics supports going for it:

-On fourth-and-1, starting at your 9-yard line.

-On fourth-and-2, beyond your 28-yard line.

-On fourth-and-3, almost everywhere beyond your 40.

Coaches aren’t robots, and there are other factors to take into account, things like game score, game situation, game flow, weather and personnel. But keep those parameters in mind next time you complain about a coach’s aggression, or lack thereof.

Campbell, of course, has been one of the most risk-tolerant coaches in the NFL this season, but he took a conservative approach late in Sunday’s loss when he opted for a late field goal on fourth-and-5 from the Atlanta 8.

I was critical of that decision, though that isn’t what decided the game. I suspect Campbell might have approached it differently had Goff been healthy and playing quarterback instead of Tim Boyle, and I can acknowledge that Boyle’s interception two series later perhaps validates Campbell’s decision to take the points.

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

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