Well, it’s finally over.
The long, hard season for the Detroit Lions came to a merciful conclusion Sunday with a 37-30 win at Ford Field after they pulled away from the Green Bay Packers’ junior varsity squad in the second half.
And everyone left happy.
Amon-Ra St. Brown broke Roy Williams’ franchise rookie receiving yards record.
Tom Kennedy threw a 75-yard touchdown pass that prompted so many questions from reporters that we see a forthcoming three-volume book on the play.
Jared Goff returned like Lazarus for his first game in three weeks and continued his strong play in the second half of the season.
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And the Lions finished their first season under coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes at the bottom of the NFC North with a 3-13-1 record.
So the season that was filled with more lows than highs, more injuries than inspirations, is finally over.
But here’s something else that’s over: The honeymoon.
Because for all the promising aspects of this season, and all the talk about foundation-building and a young roster and a colorful coach who turned out to be much more than a soundbite simpleton, the NFL doesn’t stand still for anyone — and it doesn’t tolerate losing for long.
The Lions were hard-luck losers twice this season on lengthy long-distance field goals. They played with effort in every game, even when they were vastly outmatched by their opponents’ talent. They improved as the season progressed. They won three of their final six games, including a rout of one of the NFC’s best teams (the Arizona Cardinals).
But they were also routed five times themselves. They won only two games in the division and they failed to win a road game.
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No one expected miracles this season. As I wrote multiple times, this season was not going to be about the record. It was going to be about building for next year and beyond.
Next season will also be about building the roster and improving the team. But it also has to be about results, to some extent. It’s commendable that Campbell and his staff got the most out of players late in a meaningless season, because that isn’t easy to do. Campbell talked about grit from the start, and it was there at the end Sunday.
“They understood that for us, it was what we said Day 1,” Campbell said. “We’re looking for a gritty team, guys that are resilient, guys that are willing to lay it on the line. You’re not going to feel 100%. Those guys that are 80, 90% that can still produce and are giving it their all, that’s important to us and that showed.
“And so I do feel — I do feel like, man, all the way through this season, those guys never lost hope and I think that’s important. There is hope.”
But next season, there has to be more than hope. There has to be more than good effort when the games don’t matter anymore. Holmes has to acquire enough talent so that Campbell can turn his players’ effort into results earlier in the season.
Look, I’m not expecting a playoff berth next season. But I am expecting them to remain relevant at least through the midpoint of the season. The Lions weren’t officially eliminated from the playoff race until they were blown out in Denver, 38-10, on Dec. 12. But their season was, in all practical matters, over when they limped into the bye 0-8 after a humiliating 44-6 home loss to Philadelphia.
That can’t happen next season, regardless of how many improbable final-second scenarios they face.
Campbell deserves a lot of credit for not letting blowouts stack up and for making tough decisions, like stripping offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn of his play-calling duties. Partly as a result of that decision, Campbell got better play out of quarterback Jared Goff, who is a key cog in the rebuilding process, because a terrible season by Goff would have accelerated the Lions’ need to draft — and possibly over-draft — his replacement.
“It really helped and it really helped me,” Goff said of Campbell taking over play-calling. “In the same way, I looked internally and looked for ways I could get better and was able to come back and play pretty well at the end there.
“A lot of work to do obviously. Still only three wins, but the way we finished the season absolutely is a good springboard for us into the offseason.”
But just preventing blowouts isn’t going to be good enough next year. Moral victories aren’t going to matter much. Improvement has to be a quantifiable number in the standings, especially if there’s as much coaching upheaval and franchise resetting in the division as everyone expects.
There’s going to be plenty of upheaval for the Lions, too. They have 25 players who will be free agents. They will cut other players and add more through free agency and numerous draft picks, including two in the first round. Expectations will be rightfully heightened, if they aren’t already.
“We got a lot of draft picks, a lot of young guys that are going to have to step up,” St. Brown said. “We got a lot of experience this year. A lot of young guys played, which I think is going to help us a lot next year and the years moving forward. I can’t wait to see what we do in these upcoming years and I’m excited.”
Everyone in Detroit has gotten really good at waiting on our sports teams, especially when it comes to the Lions. We saw some promise this season, and even some excitement. Now it’s time to start seeing some results.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.