Dan Campbell had hats made for his entire coaching staff this offseason.
They were black New Era caps, with the Detroit Lions logo on the side, so he fulfilled his partner responsibilities as an NFL head coach, and they had the word “Grit” in Lions font and blue lettering on the front.
If you’ve heard any of Campbell’s viral speeches, you’ve no doubt heard him use the word “grit.” It’s something he has latched onto while trying to build his program in Detroit, and he explained Saturday his thinking behind the mantra.
“That’s what we embody, that’s what we’re about,” he said before the Lions’ Fan Fest at Ford Field. “That’s what (general manager) Brad (Holmes) and I said we were going to do from Day 1 when we said, ‘What’s the vision?’ I told the coaches, ‘This is the vision of who we are.’ The players know this is our vision. It’s our foundation, it’s where everything starts, and then we branch from there.”
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The Lions showed plenty of grit and toughness in Campbell’s first season as head coach, though those attributes did not immediately translate to success. They lost three times on field goals as time expired and five times by four points or less, but they stayed the course after a tough start and won three of their final six games.
Another three-win season this fall would be beyond disappointing and would likely dilute some of his motivational tactics.
But Saturday, in a lively atmosphere in front of about 18,000 fans, the optimism was impossible to ignore.
Campbell ran his team through a largely unscripted practice, and after it was done, with DJ Chark the star of the day, he stopped to sign autographs and take selfies for fans on his way down the tunnel.
Lions players signed autographs on mini footballs that they threw (or in Jack Fox’s case, punted) into the crowd.
As fans piled into the stadium before practice, Campbell said he could sense the excitement about his team around town.
“It feels good,” he said. “I mean, look, I would say this, though, even last year, we certainly didn’t get the wins that we wanted but, man, the last three home games we had, there was a good vibe and a good feel. We could feel it as players and coaches, so I would say they picked up right where they left off. And that’s not easy to do. You’re sitting there at the end of the year, you got no wins and then you get a win, you get two, you get three. So that’s a credit to our fans, they hung in there and they’ve got hope so it’s up to us to give them something.”
Campbell said he stopped at the grocery store on his way home from the Lions’ Allen Park facility about 10 p.m. Friday, and on his way back to his car a fan yelled, “Hey, coach, go get ’em. Give ’em hell.”
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“I’m like all right, we’ll see you,” Campbell said, pumping his first to re-enact the story. “So it’s cool. It’s cool. And obviously, it’s a lot better when you’re winning. You’re losing (and it’s), ‘Hey, coach, take this,’ ” as he feigned throwing up his middle finger. “So we’re in a good place right now, we just got to get a little bit better. That’s what we’ve got to do.”
I’ve got my usual training camp observations coming, but before I get to those, I wanted to share what Campbell said to fire up his adoring crowd before practice kicked off:
“You guys have heard me say this, but I think what makes Detroit special is the fact that the fans, you guys will roll your sleeves up and put in a hard day’s work and I think we want to model ourselves after that,” Campbell said. “I’ll tell you what, you would give your coat in winter. You would give your coat to somebody in winter that needed it, man. That’s what this community’s about.
“However,” he continued, pausing for effect. “However … however, nobody will take advantage of our hospitality. Nobody. So that’s who we’re about, that’s what they’re about. This team is working their rear off to give you something to be proud of. We’re grinding it out right now and I know this, we are fricking starving. We are starving … so the hyenas better get out of the way.”
• As mentioned, Chark had a huge day, catching two touchdown passes from Jared Goff with the first-team offense. Chark and Goff seem to have found a connection that was a touch slow at the start of camp.
Chark’s first touchdown Saturday came on a third-and-3 play from the 4, when Goff looked first at T.J. Hockenson then scanned back to Chark in the middle of the field. Goff threaded his pass between two defenders — one of them rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez — showing how much he trusts his new receiver.
Chark’s second TD came on the final play of practice, in a situational series that began with the offense in first-and-10 at its own 27-yard line, down three with 1:41 to play.
Goff quickly drove the offense across midfield (with the help of a facemask penalty by Will Harris on Amon-Ra St. Brown); on first-and-10 from the 33, he hit Chark on a corner route with another crisp throw.
“It went pretty smooth,” Chark said of his connection with Goff. “We practice a lot of these things, talk about a lot of these things. A lot of it showed up today. He took some chances on me, on Saint, with the deep ball and it’s our job to continue to help him feel comfortable and we’re starting to get a rhythm.”
• Goff had a nice day overall, and both of his touchdowns to Chark came in periods when the first-team defense was on the field. (His first score came in a period that started with the offense in first-and-10 on the 50, and the drive was extended after a defensive player was called for offsides on a third-and-6 incompletion.)
With Goff at the helm, the offense also settled for a 41-yard field on its first possession of the day, going against the second-team defense, and Goff threw TDs to Josh Reynolds and St. Brown in situations that started with the ball on the defensive 25-yard line.
• Unlike most practices, in which nearly all plays are scripted, Campbell explained he put the ball in a first-and-10 to start each series, and let his coordinators (mostly) adjust based on what happened on the field.
“I think really what we’ll get out of this is now particularly for our coordinators, they’re calling down and distance,” Campbell said. “It’s more play-like for them, and then for the players, they got to be able to react. This is not run-play-pass period, this is not third down period. This is all encompassing, so now we’ll see how they handle these things.”
New Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson called plays from the sideline Saturday. Campbell indicated Johnson’s preference is to stay on the sideline during the season.
• The Lions shuffled their defensive personnel quite a bit, but it was notable that Rodriguez got a handful of snaps with the first-team defense and was on the No. 1 kick return unit.
A sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma State, Rodriguez has been one of the most pleasant surprises of camp. He is trending heavily towards being in the playing rotation early in the season; don’t be surprised if he’s pushing for a starting job before long.
• DeShon Elliott picked off a David Blough pass on the opening series by the first-team defense (against the No. 2 offense). Blough was looking for Garrett Griffin in his pass, but led the tight end a little too much as he got rid of the ball early in the face of pressure from cornerback AJ Parker.
Campbell opted to keep his second-team offense on the field after the turnover, and when Aaron Glenn dialed up a safety blitz from Brady Breeze on the next play, Blough lofted a ball to Tom Kennedy that went for a big gain.
• Eric Banks does not have an easy path to making the 53-man roster, but the backup defensive end had a nice Saturday. Banks, working with the mostly third-team defense, sacked Goff on a nice twist up front and made a good play to hold the edge a few plays later when Mark Gilbert forced D’Andre Swift out of bounds for no gain.
• I’ve opined that Austin Seibert has the edge in the kicking battle, and Saturday was an example why: Seibert made a 63-yarder, approximately (it was tough to tell the exact difference from the media perch in the end zone) off the crossbar, while Riley Patterson was well short on the same kick. Patterson also missed an approximate 54-yarder wide right, while Seibert made his four other attempts of 41, 44, 48 and 54 yards.
• I did not see Jeff Okudah or Zein Obeid at practice Saturday, and Quintez Cephus, Julian Okwara, Levi Onwuzurike and Ryan McCollum remained out with injuries.
• The 18,000 or so fans in attendance Saturday marked the most-attended Fan Fest since about 20,000 people showed up in 2015, when the Lions were coming off an 11-win season and a playoff appearance.