Allen Park — As training camps open around the NFL this week and last, optimism is characteristically high for all 32 teams.
And given the run the Cincinnati Bengals went on a year ago — going from four wins to a Super Bowl appearance, all while snapping a league-worst, 31-year drought without a postseason victory in the process — there’s an easy source of motivation.
“Our expectations are as high as anybody’s in the building,” quarterback Jared Goff said. “How do we win our division and compete for a championship in the playoffs? That’s always the expectation and that’s our daily thought every day we come out here, is how do we build toward that. I know that’s something that hasn’t been done around here in quite a long time, but I think we’re at the point where there’s such new blood and such new energy, you can kind of move past that in some ways and start fresh in your mind that we can do this thing and there’s no reason why we can’t.
“We have the talent — we feel like we do — and it’s going to come down to how detailed are we, how hard do we work today, tomorrow and through training camp,” Goff said. “… As far as talent goes, and where we feel like we’re at with our coaching staff, and where (general manager) Brad (Holmes) feels like he’s at with the roster, why not?”
It wouldn’t be difficult for an outside observer to come up with a list of reasons why the Lions aren’t equipped to make a Bengals-like surge from worst to first. Current Super Bowl odds reflect that lack of public faith. Still, there are also reasons for modest optimism in Detroit. The team has upgraded its talent on both sides of the ball and the personnel is feeling more comfortable and confident entering the second year under coach Dan Campbell.
The offense, led by Goff, offers some real potential for improvement after averaging a dismal 19.1 points per game last season. It starts up front, with a talent-rich offensive line that is due better injury luck compared to a year ago, when the patchwork group still managed to perform well despite left tackle Taylor Decker (finger) and Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow (toe) missing lengthy stretches.
And some of the team’s biggest offseason investments were to Goff’s arsenal, with the retaining of midseason waiver claim Josh Reynolds, the signing of former Pro Bowler DJ Chark and trading up in the first round of the draft to snag elite speedster Jameson Williams, even if he’s still a couple of months from contributing as he works his way back from a January ACL tear.
“Just to see everybody in the huddle and see the weapons, we got guys that can blow the top off and we got guys that can win one-on-ones,” tight end T.J. Hockenson said. “That’s really nice to be able to have. It’s harder on defenses. too. They can’t focus on one guy. They can’t have two guys on one. If they do, then it’s going to create (mismatches) everywhere else. I think we’re going to have a little bit of fun this year.”
Campbell also is feeling optimistic, but in a more muted way. He’s not ready to talk about division titles, playoffs or Super Bowls, focusing like most coaches on the present moment and day-to-day improvement. That said, he’s confident his team is ready to take a significant step forward after finishing 3-13-1 during his first year at the helm.
“I think for me and for those players, and I want them to know that I truly believe we have the right coaching staff,” Campbell said. “And I do believe we got enough pieces in here to compete. I really do.
“…Now it’s up us collectively to find a way to turn some of those losses from last year into wins. You find a way turn, to flip five or six of those games, and all of sudden you’re right there. That to me is what this is about.”
The Lions had several tight losses last year before breaking through for their first win. That included a two-point loss to the Baltimore Ravens on the longest field goal in NFL history and a crushing road loss to division rival Minnesota two weeks later, also after a long field goal as time expired.
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Following a midseason bye, the Lions came away with a tie in Pittsburgh, followed by a pair of losses by a combined five points before a thrilling last-second touchdown pass from Goff to rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown in a rematch with the Vikings snapped the team’s winless start to the season. That bloomed into a respectable 3-3 record the final six weeks.
Campbell knows finding a way to close out opponents in one-score games could push the Lions close to or above .500 in the second year of the franchise’s rebuild.
“I think we have enough to compete, and now it’s on us to find a way to close out those games,” he said.