Detroit Lions got plenty of hype this offseason. But here’s why I’m not buying it yet

Detroit Free Press

Things change, and I suppose that’s just the nature of life.

The Detroit Lions, for instance, have been trying to change things forever. Change the uniform, change the culture, change the logo, change the culture again, and maybe you’ll finally change the outcome.

Training camp kicked off Wednesday with a change in the weather as an unseasonably cool midsummer day welcomed everyone back to Allen Park, including reporters who were treated to a changed — no, transformed — media workroom, resplendently decorated in a style I can best describe as newspaper chic. Walls are now decorated with posters and murals of facsimiles of old newspapers that tell the tales of the team’s big moments.

JEFF SEIDEL: Strangest Lions training camp ever? Dan Campbell could make it the most memorable

There’s even a mural of Calvin Johnson with his dad on the day he broke Jerry Rice’s single-season receiving record at Ford Field, the Hall of Fame receiver elated and ebullient, frozen in time on a wall until the man himself returns to the team.

I’m closing in on two decades of coming to Lions training camp, and in that time I’ve seen a lot of things change. And yet, I’ve also seen far too little meaningful change, even as much as owners, executives, coaches and players have tried to affect change for the better.

Yes, the Lions surely are trying to change things. They’re trying to change their 2021 record of 3-13-1. But if you’ve been following the steady stream of hype surrounding this team since the end of last season, don’t buy in to the hype and hyperbole that’s been mostly formulated, frankly, by media outside of Detroit who, very frankly, need something to write about in the spring and early summer. You know, before games are played and the national media goes back to ignoring the Lions.

I’m not writing the Lions’ season obituary based on one day of camp. That’s ridiculous. For the record, my prediction for the Lions’ win total is six games, which amounts to a modest step forward. Not great, not bad, and mostly reasonable. And I was only more convinced of my prediction after watching and listening to coaches and players on Wednesday. Essentially, I got a cautious, muted and realistic vibe from the team about its outlook for the season.

I know, I know. Being cautious and realistic in camp is downright blasphemous. Everyone wants to hear breathless exhortations about every promising player. Speaking of which, oh boy, did receiver Quintez Cephus snag an amazing one-handed catch and run into the end zone during a seven-on-seven period! (By the way, no pads and no tackling allowed.)

[ Dan Campbell: If second-year players don’t improve, Lions are ‘in trouble’ ]

But after listening carefully to coach Dan Campbell, quarterback Jared Goff and tight end T.J. Hockenson, I came away with the impression that this team still has a long way to go before it has a winning record and is a serious contender for the playoffs.

Blame is a strong word, so instead I’ll say that Campbell is responsible for a lot of the hype and heightened expectations. Maybe when he speaks with Peter King of NBC Sports and compares the Lions to Kentucky Derby underdog champion Rich Strike and invokes “S-O-L,” the ultimate trigger phrase for Lions fans, well, hype can suddenly turn into hysteria in the Honolulu Blue nation.

When I asked Campbell about his comments to King and what the internal expectations are for the team, he was decidedly more reserved in his outlook.

“I think for me and for those players,” he said, “I want them to know that I truly believe we have the right coaching staff. And I do believe we’ve got enough pieces in here to compete.”

LIONS TRAINING CAMP OBSERVATIONS: Campbell’s optimism starts with his staff

Of course, competing can mean anything. Competing can mean having a chance to win most of your 17 games and only getting blown out four times, like last year. Campbell did include in his answer the need to find a way to win more close games, perhaps enough to tilt the final record in his favor.

“And so I can’t put wins and losses on that,” he said. “I just know that I feel good about, ‘All right, we’ve got the pieces here to mix it up with just about anybody.’ Now it’s on us to find a way to win.”

That’s a lot easier said than done. It certainly can happen, but it will be very difficult because all those teams the Lions lost to last year are also trying just as hard to better.

And that’s really what this is season is about: The incremental improvement that comes with change. The general perception is that a team entering its second season under a coaching staff should be better. But as Goff and Hockenson pointed out, it’s really the first season in the offense of first-time coordinator Ben Johnson.

The players expressed their confidence in Johnson, who helped design plays midway through last season when Anthony Lynn was relieved of his play-calling duties. But Hockenson was especially careful when he was asked about his expectations for the offense.

“Our expectations are just day-by-day,” he said. “I mean really, it’s getting better. It’s the first year of it, so we have to learn a lot. We’re learning basically a new language. During this camp is really what we have to get is (homing) in on the language and understanding it.”

[ Second-round pick Josh Paschal recovering from sports hernia surgery ]

At the end of practice, team owner Sheila Hamp and president Rod Wood walked over and we exchanged pleasantries. I complimented the new media workroom and kidded them about not being able to find any of my articles on the mural. Wood laughed and said that might change if I ever write a positive story.

I’ll tell you a secret, if you promise not to tell anyone: I like Hamp and Wood. I like Campbell, too. They are nice, relatable people and I think their intentions and efforts are sincere.

But for now, as the team gets ready to embark on the hard work that will determine how much it can change its fortunes this season, well, I just don’t buy any of that external the hype. If you think I’m being negative or too hard too early, then I have a suggestion for the Lions: Prove me wrong for a change.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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