Dan Campbell’s first instinct was to play quarterback Jared Goff on Friday.
Campbell planned to give his starters a quarter or so of work in the Detroit Lions’ preseason opener against the Atlanta Falcons, but Goff’s strong play over the past week of training camp had Campbell reconsidering his decision.
He talked with his assistants and settled on sitting Goff, the Lions’ clear-cut starting quarterback and best hope to turn things around after last year’s 3-13-1 season.
Then Goff got wind of Campbell’s plans and things changed again.
“We really didn’t intend on playing him,” Campbell said Friday. “He was the one who, he came to my office and said, ‘I want to play,’ and I said, ‘Well, you’re not playing.’ And he said, ‘Well, if (the offensive line is) playing, I’m playing,’ and I said, ‘OK, you’re playing.’ So appreciate that about him, though. And man, he went out there and ran that offense and that’s really what you’re looking for out of your ones.”
Goff joined the rest of the Lions’ starting offense, minus tight end T.J. Hockenson, for one series of work in Friday’s 27-23 loss to the Falcons.
He led a crisp 10-play, 79-yard touchdown drive, completed 3 of 4 passes (with one drop) for 47 yards and left the game before the Atlanta’s starting defense could so much as lay a hand on him.
“I think one thing that fired I know me up, Frank (Ragnow up), a couple of the other guys, I don’t think Jared was even supposed to play today and then he heard that we were playing, the starting line, and he went to Dan and he said, ‘I’m in, I’m playing,’” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “And that’s, I love that. You want your quarterback to go out there. He’s like, ‘If my guys are out there, I’m going to go out there and compete. We’re going to go right down the field and score.’ And that’s what we did so we were excited to get out there as a whole offense.”
The Lions’ starting offense likely will not play again until the regular season opener Sept. 11 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Lions have preseason games left against the Indianapolis Colts and Pittsburgh Steelers, but with two days of joint practices against the Colts next week, where starters can get extended work against a good defense in a more controlled setting, there’s no reason to expose Goff and others to the risk of playing in games.
On Friday, the unit played fast and efficient football, much to Campbell’s delight.
D’Andre Swift had 20 yards rushing on four carries. Jamaal Williams added 12 yards on two rushes. Amon-Ra St. Brown caught both passes thrown his way. And Swift scored on a 9-yard run behind a high-priced Lions offensive line that had its way with Atlanta’s mostly first-string defense.
“They’re gelling,” Goff said. “I think I said this last week, but it’s coming together for them for sure, as you expect it to kind of at this point in camp and where they’re at. But yeah, it’s been fun to watch and obviously fun for me to be behind them and see them come together.”
For Decker, Ragnow and right tackle Penei Sewell, all former first-round picks, and guards Jonah Jackson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Friday marked their first game together since last preseason.
Decker fractured his finger last August and missed the first eight games of the year, and by the time he returned Ragnow was on injured reserve, out for the season with a foot injury.
The Lions struggled to run the ball and throw down field at times last season, and are counting on Goff and their line to pave a different path this season.
Campbell gushed about the trust he’s seen develop between Goff and his line — and the rest of the offense — this summer, a trust he said was on display Friday.
“He trusts them, I trust him and I trust that O-line,” Campbell said. “And I trust (offensive coordinator) Ben (Johnson) was going to put him in the right situation, and so look, we did what we needed to do. I thought that group – there’s always stuff you can work on. We can be better with some of our tempo with that group, but at the end of the day, man, they played pretty good together for the first one out and I was pleased with that.”
Campbell had less to be pleased about Friday with the rest of his team’s performance.
The Falcons’ first-team offense played one series and put together its own 12-play, 82-yard touchdown drive. Atlanta converted two third downs on the drive and quarterback Marcus Mariota moved the offense with his arm and legs.
Mariota ran for 23 yards on three carries and scored on a 6-yard run, and rookie Desmond Ridder added a game-high 59 yards rushing on six carries as the Lions young defense struggled to contain Atlanta’s mobile quarterbacks.
Still, the Lions were in position to win their first preseason game under Campbell until David Blough fumbled a shotgun snap with 2 minutes to play and a chance to run out the clock.
The Falcons recovered and Ridder threw a 21-yard touchdown pass to former Ferris State quarterback Jared Bernhardt five plays later for the game-winning score.
“Certainly wish we would have finished that out the right way, but we didn’t do that,” Campbell said. “But it was good to get a good look at our guys.”
Given the circumstances, it was meaningful for Goff to see the field, too.
“He was in a good spot so we kind of said, ‘Well, if we’re going to sit somebody maybe we ought to sit Goff,'” Campbell said. “And so he found out and that was not what he wanted to do. And he had conviction about not wanting to do it, and I’m all for conviction.”