Mobile, Ala. — It’s more than a 2,000-mile drive from the gulf coast of Alabama to Los Angeles, but that’s nothing compared to the distance it feels the Detroit Lions are away from the Super Bowl.
Sure, after avoiding the dreaded winless season, the Lions finished the year on an upswing. The way the players fought, and the individual development of the young talent, are reasons for cautious optimism going forward. But when you stack the roster against the Rams and Bengals — the two teams that will compete for the championship in a little under two weeks — you are reminded how long of a road Detroit faces to ascend the mountain.
Both coach Dan Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes know what it takes to reach that pinnacle. Campbell made the Super Bowl as a player, with the New York Giants in 2000, and fell an egregious officiating error short of experiencing it again as an assistant coach in New Orleans.
Holmes, meanwhile, joined the Rams organization as a scouting assistant shortly before the tents from the Greatest Show on Turf were dismantled. But after experiencing some lean years as he climbed the organizational ranks, he would play an instrumental role as the franchise’s college scouting director when the Rams returned the Super Bowl three years ago.
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Plenty of those pieces added through the draft over the years are still in place for a Rams team that returns to this year’s championship affair. Among them, Cooper Kupp has developed into one of the league’s premier receivers — winning the position’s triple crown in 2021 — while Aaron Donald remains in the conversation as the NFL’s best defensive talent eight years after the Rams selected him in the first round of the 2014 draft.
But it’s also a much different team than the one Holmes left to take the Lions job a little more than a year ago. Of course the difference starts at quarterback, where Matthew Stafford now runs the show after Holmes traded the longtime Lions starter to his former team, simultaneously kickstarting Detroit’s rebuild.
The Rams paid through the nose to make that deal happen, sending the Lions three draft picks, including two first-rounders. It wasn’t exactly a new strategy for the franchise, which also spent their previous two first-round choices to acquire All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey. And after landing Stafford, the team further went all-in on winning now by sending a pair of high-round picks to Denver for superstar edge rusher Von Miller before luring Odell Beckham to L.A., shortly after Cleveland cut ties with the former Pro Bowl receiver at midseason.
The Rams found a way to do something the Lions couldn’t; build a juggernaut around Stafford. And if we’re being honest, it probably wasn’t something Detroit could have done, at least not to this extent. The Lions were never close enough to mortgage all those future assets, and even if they did, they couldn’t match the appeal of playing in one of this country’s destination cities.
So for as much as Holmes was able to hone his abilities working for the Rams, there’s only so much he’d be able to take from their current Super Bowl run, beyond scoring premium talent such as Kupp and Donald via the draft.
No, it’s the Bengals who provide more hope and a realistic blueprint for eventual contention. You know, the Bengals, the only franchise that had a longer drought without a playoff victory than the Lions until a few weeks ago. The Bengals, a team that finished 2-14 in 2019, coach Zac Taylor’s first season as coach.
There are connections there, too. Campbell and Taylor worked together at Texas A&M and Miami early in their coaching careers, and before he took the Bengals job, Taylor overlapped with Holmes in Los Angeles while coaching the Rams wide receivers and quarterbacks in 2017 and 2018.
“So happy for Zac and what he’s done,” Holmes said. “It’s just a tremendous, I don’t want to call it a turnaround. When I look at what the Bengals did, I’m just like, look, those guys stayed the course. They stuck to their process. Just from the outside looking in it looks like that they just kept drafting, they added the free agents they needed to add …and it eventually turned for them. It’s a good process they had in place and it worked for them, but we have to create our own (path). We have our own plight, but we do have a process in place and hopefully we can get some similar success.”
As noted, it wasn’t an overnight process for Taylor. The Bengals won two games his first season and four the next, putting him on the hot seat entering this season, before everything started clicking, led by that balance of successful draft picks and free agent acquisitions.
Holmes is seemingly off to a strong start in one facet of that equation, landing quality pieces in Penei Sewell, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Alim McNeil via the draft, with the potential for some of those other 2021 picks to develop into quality contributors.
And the GM should get a better chance to flex his talent evaluation skills in free agency this year after being handcuffed by the poor cap situation he inherited, further complicated by the ramifications of the Stafford trade.
“We’ll have a little bit different resources that we can work with and our roster is different now,” Holmes said. “We laid a good foundation in place, we have a good plan in place. Starting this week, we’ll be having discussion and getting that process going.”
Could the Lions really mirror the Bengals’ ascent over the next few seasons? It’s admittedly a long shot, and it’s easily argued Detroit lacks the most critical piece to the puzzle, which Cincinnati landed when they drafted quarterback Joe Burrow No. 1 overall in 2020.
Still, even with Burrow, who thought the Bengals would be here and this quickly? Certainty not Vegas, who had them among the longest odds to win the Super Bowl before the start of the season.
In the NFL, expectations and history are frequently defied, the Bengals are just the latest example. For the Lions to do the same in the coming years, It will be up to Holmes and Campbell to make it happen.