Wojo: Lions finish with flourish, but next trick must be more meaningful

Detroit News

Detroit — Flea-flickers and fake punts, fourth-down gambles and timely scrambles. In a free-for-all finale, the Lions displayed more aggressiveness and cleverness, an entertaining flourish.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in Dan Campbell’s first season as head coach, the Lions won’t play it safe or bland. And if there’s another thing we learned, the high-wire act is fine and fun when the games don’t matter as much.

Next season, the games should matter significantly more, and if the rebuild continues as planned, extremes like this won’t be necessary. The Lions emptied their playbook one more time in a wild 37-30 victory Sunday over the Packers, who’d already clinched the NFC North and played Aaron Rodgers only in the first half. The next step is to reload the playbook with sustainable plans, and the Lions have the pieces — in theory — to make it happen.

“We went out and finished on a high note, and I thought in some regards, we played some of our best football,” Campbell said. “There’s still a lot we want to correct, but we said we wanted to take the hard road one more time and our guys did that. … I do feel like these guys never lost hope and I think that’s important. There is hope.”

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You hope the hope is sustainable, but it will require more than that. Fret if you wish that the Lions lost their shot at the No. 1 pick by winning after Jacksonville also won, but it’s not overly damaging. They’ll get a prime defensive prospect, whether it’s Aidan Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux or someone else.

The hard road can be construed as the unconventional road, the one teams take when outmanned. It’s fair to expect a different road by the Lions next season. You could argue this was the most-invigorating 3-13-1 season in NFL history, and not just because it’s the only one. It also was enlightening, as the Lions covered up weaknesses with increasingly effective trickery, and uncovered would-be strengths.

Irrepressible receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown was an absolute revelation, and caught eight more passes for 109 yards. The fourth-round pick set franchise single-season rookie receiving records, and if you can find a more unexpected Lion prize in our lifetimes, good luck. His connection with Jared Goff grew tighter as the games unfolded.

And for the first time in a couple decades, the Lions proved they could run the ball in almost any situation. Their offensive line, when healthy and intact, should be powerful, with Frank Ragnow returning to join Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell, who had a superb rookie year. D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams both averaged more than 4 yards per carry and the Lions finished in the top 10 in the league in rushing.

When you can run the ball, your playbook is wide open, from play-action passes to, yes, the occasional flea-flicker. Goff was 3-2 in his final five starts and markedly more comfortable after Campbell took over play-calling. Coordinator Anthony Lynn reportedly will be let go, which was a foregone conclusion once he was divested of control.

It was a tough call by Campbell to assume the duties and it was rough at times. But it essentially revived Goff, who recovered from a brutal first two months and showed he can start again next season, giving GM Brad Holmes freedom to load up on defense, especially with the two first-round picks. Goff had 11 touchdown passes and two interceptions in his final five starts and displayed toughness he admitted he wasn’t sure he had.

“It’s been obviously a rocky year, not fun in certain instances,” said Goff, 21-for-30 for 238 yards. “My job is to bear the brunt of it sometimes, you don’t shy away from it, you own it and you get better. I’m proud of the way I handled it, proud of the way all our guys handled it.”

After an 0-8 start, the Lions went 3-3 down the stretch, and with lots of draft capital, it will be a critically important offseason. Will they lose some of the feisty nothing-to-lose mentality that sparked the creativity? Sure, because hopefully they’ll have something to lose and plenty to gain.

More: From ‘Butters’ to better: Lions’ Tracy Walker caps turnaround season with big pick

We’ll still see risk-taking because that’s how Campbell is wired and how Sean Payton and the Saints are wired, where Campbell worked previously. Will we see two brilliant flea-flickers, another fake punt and three other fourth-down attempts (setting an NFL single-season record, going 21-for-41)? That shouldn’t be needed as often because the Lions shouldn’t be as outmanned next season.

“If they’re (producing) touchdowns, I guarantee we’ll keep calling them,” Goff said. “If they aren’t, then yeah you can pull back a little bit, but it’s fun. Dan is that type of guy, very aggressive, we all know that. If we were playing with a lead, I’d imagine we wouldn’t have called either of those plays. But the way the game was going, last game of the season, let it all go.”

The Lions’ fake punt on fourth-and-13 from their own 35 on their first possession wouldn’t be wise in a higher-stakes game, and punter Jack Fox’s pass slipped through Godwin Igwebuike’s arms. But late in the first half, Campbell elected to go on fourth-and-1 from the 50 and Goff’s pass to Josh Reynolds went for 11 yards, setting up a field goal.

The Lions pulled off an astounding trick play to tie it 7-7, something they practiced a few times last week. Goff faked a pitch to Kalif Raymond, then handed the ball to St. Brown. Because St. Brown had run in that situation before, the Packers were fooled as he flipped it to reserve receiver Tom Kennedy. Raymond sprinted wide open and Kennedy made a perfect throw for a 75-yard touchdown.

A variation of that play worked in the third quarter. Goff took a pitch from St. Brown and threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to tight end Brock Wright that gave the Lions a 24-13 lead.

“I think that you have to take (trick plays) as it comes,” Campbell said. “We had everything going and we wanted to have enough ammo. It gives you a little jolt.”

And that’s what this season was about — a jolt. As an organization, the Lions needed one, and record aside, they got it. Aaron Glenn’s defense lost most of its secondary and its primary pass rusher to injuries and played five rookies. But the handful of times the Lions were blown out, they rebounded the following week with a competitive effort.

This provided another opportunity after a 51-29 beating at Seattle. The Packers had nothing to play for but kept their starters in through the first half. At the end, interceptions by safeties Tracy Walker and C.J. Moore off backup Jordan Love sealed it.

The noisy Ford Field crowd was practically split between Lions and Packers fans, another thing that needs to change. But the effort and push from the Lions rarely wavered, and of all the foundational pieces established by Campbell, player development and player engagement were the most important.

“We’ve had so many ups and downs this year that I don’t think we give enough credit to Dan Campbell,” said Walker, a pending free agent who’s had a rebirth with this staff. “He’s a hell of a coach. … (Trick plays), that’s just what every team’s gotta realize when they play us. You’re gonna get the best of us, we ain’t holding nothing back.”

They held nothing back in the final game of the season, and if the plan works, one of the final games of the nothing-to-lose era. The Lions took their licks and showed their tricks, and the next time we see them, they need to be capable of showing much more.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: bobwojnowski

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