Niyo: Stage directions for Lions’ next act? Let the good vibes roll

Detroit News

Allen Park — We’ll know what the Lions’ schedule looks like Thursday night, when the NFL reveals its slate of games for the 2022 regular season.

And we’ll have a better idea in a few months just how the Lions might stack up with those opponents, once they put on the pads and start simulating real football.

We may even have a better sense than usual, too, after getting a behind-the-scenes look at the Lions throughout training camp, with HBO’s annual “Hard Knocks” docuseries focusing a national lens on the perennially-forgotten pro football franchise in Detroit.

But for now, all that Lions fans are left with are their feelings, which haven’t been a safe space — or a healthy one — in quite some time.

Certainly not a place where anyone would feel comfortable hearing the words “Super Bowl” tossed around by players the way running back Jamaal Williams was doing it Wednesday after another offseason workout at the team’s practice facility.

“It’s just really us coming with a new mindset … knowing we’re going for a Super Bowl,” Williams said, making one of several references to a place the Lions have never, ever been. “We’ve gotta have the mindset now before anything. Last year is last year. It’s a new year.”

Culture shift

All joking aside — and trust me, the gregarious Williams, who generates laughter like few others you’ll meet, was dead serious about his goals — there is a new vibe in Allen Park.

It’s one we all began to feel last year, as the Lions’ new regime arrived and started taking the muffler off the Ford family’s latest junked model. And it’s one I think we’ll see the players are more comfortable talking about as they enter the next phase of the NFL offseason, with a rookie minicamp this weekend followed by several weeks of OTAs.

And while the fans have been down this road before with the Lions — they hit the reset button about as often as your teenager hits the snooze button on a Monday morning — this one doesn’t feel like a dead-ender. Not yet, at least.

When Dan Campbell took the Lions’ head coaching job some 15 months ago, he promised the fans they’d see and hear more passion and emotion from his teams. And even in a 3-13-1 debut in 2021, his team largely delivered on that. You saw it in the way they finished the season, winning three of their last six games, and you can hear it in the way they talk about what that meant going forward.

“He has instilled belief, man,” said fourth-year cornerback Amani Oruwariye, who is coming off a career-best season with six interceptions. “I think for a while, winning the game — I don’t know if guys really believed we were going to win the game.”

And for a long while, they didn’t win the game. It took until Week 13 — from September until December — for the Lions to notch their first win on Campbell’s watch. Yet it said something that they stayed competitive throughout all the negativity, for the most part. There were some ugly punts along the way, most notably those home losses to Cincinnati and Philadelphia sandwiched around the near-miss on the road against Matthew Stafford and the Rams.

“But I think every week we went into a game we knew in our minds — we thought in our minds — we were going to win the game,” Oruwariye added. “And that’s a huge thing, to have that culture shift in the locker room.”

Time to shine

Now the question is how quickly, or easily, they can shift this thing into another gear. That’s what they’ll spend the next few months trying to figure out on the field, installing a new offense under first-year coordinator Ben Johnson and a more aggressive defense in Year 2 under Aaron Glenn. That’s also what Williams was talking about Wednesday, noting the need for new leaders to emerge in one of the NFL’s youngest locker rooms. (Veteran defensive tackle Michael Brockers is the only player on the 90-man roster over the age of 28.)

“You gotta have those people who are gonna take that darkness out and bring the light,” said Williams, who split the carries nearly 50-50 with D’Andre Swift in the backfield last fall. “So that’s what this is all about. A lot of darkness is happening, but as long as you got people who’ve got light in ’em, the light will shine.”

And I do think that’s the potential benefit of what’s yet to come this summer, when the players put on the pads and the Lions are forced to let down their guard, in a manner of speaking. When the lights come on, and the spotlight shines — for once — on this franchise.

Some players and coaches won’t like the “Hard Knocks” intrusion, and others won’t like how they’re portrayed in the final edits when the first episode airs Aug. 9. (That’s inevitable when an estimated 1,750 hours of footage gets cut down to five.) But as an organization, I think the Lions would do well to embrace the opportunity — not just to rebrand themselves, but to reveal themselves.

This is a roster chock-full of good character and real characters, and putting those personalities on display will only help generate more goodwill among a fan base that’s still in recovery after the passionless Patriot Way experience.

So whether it’s the comical “swag daddy” ramblings of Williams or the self-deprecating wit of Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow, the noisy intensity of secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant or the unfiltered enthusiasm from the Lions’ hulking head man — “Yeah, everybody wants to see superhero Dan,” Oruwariye laughed — this summer is a chance to remind everyone around here that football is supposed to be fun.

Or as Campbell put it earlier this offseason, “If you want to know what we’re about, we’re about cutting it loose.”

And if they’re true to their word, we’re about to find out if that looks as good as it sounds.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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