The Detroit Lions have been a laughingstock of the NFL for a long time, and nothing about a two-win season will make that change.
But dive a little deeper into what Dan Campbell has accomplished in his first year as head coach and it’s hard not to feel different about the latest version of the Lions rebuild.
At 2-13-1, the Lions have the second-worst record in the NFL and are locked into a last-place finish in the NFC North for the fourth straight year. But heading into Sunday’s season finale against the Green Bay Packers, they seem, for one of the first times in my 13 seasons covering the team, to be on track for something better.
“I see it like this,” Campbell said Friday. “I told (Lions owner) Sheila (Ford Hamp) this the other day and really the team, but we’ve kind of been — we’re in the Arctic Ocean, but we’re headed to the Caribbean. You can see it. I can see it. It’s not always easy to see and there’s a long way to go, but we’re heading there, I do know that.”
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The Lions navigated their share of choppy water this season, and storm squalls surely are ahead. But 16 difficult games into their journey, nothing has knocked them off course.
With Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes taking the lead, the Lions have gone about their rebuild in a measured, intentional way.
They’ve filled their roster with young talent. They’ve turned that talent loose on the field. They’ve given themselves the flexibility they need to negotiate the offseason. And they’ve done it all while getting buy-in from players and staff.
The losing hasn’t been easy, but no one thinks it’s for naught.
“I think that’s what all of this has been about this first year is, of course we wanted to get the wins, but the most important thing was to develop our talent, develop our players, develop our culture. And knowing where we’re going,” Campbell said. “Everything had to happen that’s happened this year, to an extent. You had to go through some of these growing pains, and it’s not been easy. But yet, man, anything worth having or anything worth having success at, man, it takes a lot of work, hard work. It’s not going to just happen. And it’s also what makes it that much sweeter, that’s for sure.”
Plenty of Lions rebuilds have failed in the past 65 years, and there’s no guarantee this one will work. But as another season comes to a close, there are tangible reasons to believe in the path the Lions have plotted on their map:
The offensive line
The Lions do not currently have an elite offensive line, but they have the potential to have one. And in the NFL, good offensive line play can carry a team a long way.
Taylor Decker has been one of the league’s best pass protectors since he returned from a finger injury that cost him the first eight games of the season, and paired with Penei Sewell, he gives the Lions one of the most formidable tackle tandems in the league. Sewell is a 21-year-old rookie who has steadily improved this season, and the Lions have played most of the year without Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow.
The Lions should return their top six linemen in 2022 — guards Jonah Jackson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai and swing tackle Matt Nelson also are under contract — which gives them rare continuity in the trenches. A strong line can hide a lot of warts, on both sides of the ball, and speed up the rebuilding process for a young team.
Going young this season gave the Lions the chance to see a number of players in key roles who would have languished on other teams, and several of those players made contributions well beyond any reasonable expectation coming into the year.
Amon-Ra St. Brown is on the verge of setting the franchise record for most receiving yards by a rookie. Jerry Jacobs looked like a capable NFL starting cornerback before he tore his ACL. Charles Harris made good on his talent as a bona fide pass rusher. And Amani Oruwariye turned into an interception machine.
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Holmes and his staff deserve credit for identifying and procuring some overlooked talent; St. Brown was a fourth-round pick and Jacobs signed with the Lions as an undrafted rookie. And Campbell and his staff get credit for nurturing those players and putting them in a position to succeed.
The Lions weren’t without their personnel misses this year. The free agent receivers Holmes signed were busts, and second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike has lots to prove in Year 2. But player development is an underappreciated part of NFL success, so it’s encouraging to see the Lions get meaningful contributions from unexpected places.
I do not believe St. Brown is a product of circumstance. He is dynamic enough that he should be even better when he’s on a good team surrounded by other good players. Ditto Jacobs, as long as his knee checks out
If I’m wrong, those two and several other Lions have proven they can at least be valuable depth pieces in the NFL, and a lack of depth is something that’s sunk better teams than the Lions over the years.
“At this point with where we’re at, to get those guys that you want to get a look at and see where they can go and giving them opportunity, it’s invaluable because you never know,” Campbell said. “Down the road, they may be your starters if they’re not already. Or they become valuable depth for you. Special teams, quality backup players. And all of those reps matter. Every bit of it does.”
The Lions will bring in competition this offseason for young players like linebacker Derrick Barnes, cornerbacks Jacobs and A.J. Parker, tight end Brock Wright and pass rusher Austin Bryant, all of whom started at least five games this season. Should any of those players revert to a backup role, that’s a sign of progress in this rebuild.
Any discussion about the Lions’ future must include mention of the draft capital they are sitting on waiting to hatch.
Along with the likely No. 2 pick in this year’s draft — they could move up to No. 1 with a loss to the Packers and a Jacksonville Jaguars upset of the Indianapolis Colts — the Lions have extra first-round picks this year and next from the Los Angeles Rams and should have three compensatory picks in this year’s draft for last year’s free agent losses.
Winning in the NFL is mostly about players, good ones, and the Lions have not had enough of those in recent years. Even now, they are short on difference-makers on both sides of the ball.
But they should be able to land an impact talent at the top of this year’s draft and they should be able to fill another need or two in the first 34 picks.
I’m still of the belief the Lions need a quarterback, a first mate for Campbell, if you will, to take this ship into port. But there’s enough sea ahead that Holmes can find one along the way and he has enough resources to get it done.
Thirteen-loss seasons are mostly miserable and this year’s was in no way fun. But no one seems to have lost faith in the voyage the Lions are on, and Tracy Walker offered a simple explanation why.
“Our coaching staff,” Walker said Friday. “I love my coaching staff. I mean, shit, Dan, I love playing for Dan. I love playing for A.G. (defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) and I love playing for A.P. (secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant). Those guys, they take care of me and I’ve gotten better because of those guys. Since they’ve gotten here, I’ve seen massive improvements in my game. Mentally, physically and as a man. At the end of the day, that’s why I would stay and play for them.”
Walker is one of the Lions’ top pending free agents, and there will be a major financial component to whether he stays in Detroit. He also, like a lot of holdovers on the roster and in the building, was worn down mentally by the last regime.
But Campbell has proven to be a unique leader who’s engendered serial buy-in, and that’s not easy to do in the NFL.
The Lions have played their share of dog games this season. They got blown out by the Cincinnati Bengals and Philadelphia Eagles and Denver Broncos, and each time they did, they responded with a strong effort that was a reflection of their coach.
It’s possible Campbell turns out to be some folksy, football version of a televangelist fleecing his congregation for its tithe, but I doubt it. If you’ve been around the NFL long enough, you’ve seen enough fake to know what real is, and that’s why Campbell has resonated with so many people.
Buy-in can be fleeting, and for that reason it is important the Lions to take a step forward next year.
They don’t need to be Super Bowl contenders, but if they win some games and maybe contend for a wild card spot, continue to get growth and development from their players, they’ll be on their way to the Caribbean, where a whole new set of challenges awaits.