Why Dan Campbell gives Detroit Lions constant reminder or organization’s ineptitude

Detroit Free Press

The most stunning visual in the first episode of “Hard Knocks” wasn’t Aidan Hutchinson dancing to “Billie Jean” or Dan Campbell describing how to take someone’s last breath by submerging them under water in the ocean abyss.

In an image captured by NFL FIlms, three years are plastered on the back wall of the team meeting room in the Detroit Lions‘ Allen Park training facility.

• 1992, the last year the Lions won a playoff game.

• 1993, the last season they won a division championship.

• And 1957, the last time they won a league title — 10 years before the Super Bowl.

Most teams celebrate their past successes by hanging banners from the rafters, and the Lions have a few of those — along with snapshots of some of the greatest moments and players in team history — adorning the walls and hallways in Allen Park.

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But Campbell has taken a unique approach to the Lions’ lousy past. He has embraced it, and by doing so he has given his players something else to aspire to.

“It’s basically a reminder,” Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown told me after Friday’s preseason-opening loss to the Atlanta Falcons. “Shoot, you see, there’s not a lot of banners in where we practice in our indoor training facility and we want to change that. We want to make something happen this year and we feel like we have the team.”

St. Brown and his fellow receivers are reminded of the Lions’ three decades of ineptitude more than just about anyone else. The Lions’ team room doubles as their daily receiver meeting room, so every time they get up to walk out the door those years and a line explaining their significances smacks them in the face.

Not that they need the explanation anymore.

Winning is important. It’s every team’s goal in the NFL.

But the chance to do something historic is pretty motivational, too.

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“Basically just trying to get rid of that Same Ol’ Detroit stigma,” receiver Trinity Benson said. “We meet in the team room, so that’s what I’m saying. I can’t get away (from it).”

If we’re being honest, many professional athletes don’t have a deep sense of history of the sports they play, and many don’t fully appreciate what their organizations mean to the cities they play in.

Campbell has tried to change that by weaving those concepts into the fabric of his team.

The Lions have one player who was alive the last time the franchise won a playoff game, 31-year-old Michael Brockers, yet ending the league’s longest postseason victory drought has become a mission for some of the 90 players in camp.

Campbell, who might be the premier motivator in the NFL, publicly acknowledged the Same Ol’ Lions stigma at the start of training camp, saying ending it inspires “all of us a little bit here.”

St. Brown said Campbell has not spoken of the sign in any of the Lions’ meetings this summer, but he doesn’t have to when it lingers like a clock on a wall during a timed test for everyone to see.

“I think just Detroit as a whole, we feel like this city deserves something, and we as a team, we feel like it’s time,” St. Brown said. “Right now is the time. No more waiting, no more rebuilding year, we want to do it now. So that’s how we feel and I feel like we have the team this year. I feel like we can do it. We all just got to buy in and like I said, there’s no more rebuild, there’s no more, ‘Ah, we’ll do it next year.’ No, it’s this year and it’s all out.”

Two lingering concerns

I’m a couple weeks away from having to submit my official game-by-game predictions, but I’m still thinking the Lions will finish somewhere around the seven-win mark.

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If Jared Goff plays well and stays healthy, the Lions have the makings of a pretty good offense. Goff has an array of weapons in the passing game, led by St. Brown, DJ Chark and T.J. Hockenson, and the Lions legitimately have a top-10 (minimum) offensive line that should help get the most out of D’Andre Swift and the running game.

My apprehension in picking the Lions to win more games is twofold: First, as good as Goff has looked the past week, it’s impossible to ignore how he played the first half of last season and how his tenure ended with the Los Angeles Rams. The Lions have invested heavily in their offense in hopes of getting the best out of Goff, and so far it’s working. But when Goff struggles, which has been often in recent years, the Lions will be hard-pressed to win games.

Second, I worry Aaron Glenn will have to be a miracle worker of sorts with this Lions defense. I think Glenn is an excellent coach, and he should be a hot commodity when teams go looking for new leaders come January. But the Lions still have subpar talent on defense, particularly in the back seven, where they are bound to take some lumps this fall.

Aidan Hutchinson has a chance to be a special player, so the Lions’ pass rush could make up for some of their other defensive shortcomings. But the line is neither big nor particularly deep with their last two second-round picks, Josh Paschal and Levi Onwuzurike, nursing injuries.

Unless they Lions find a playmaker in their back seven, I fear they’ll be dancing with fire all season.

Two reasons for optimism

On the flip side, the Lions offensive line has the makings of being one of the best in football, and teams with dominant offensive fronts usually win lots of ballgames.

The Lions’ first-team offensive line looked very good in its one series of work Friday. They kept Goff clean, opened holes in the running game and allowed the offense to show its play-action potential.

Beyond the line’s makeup, I think something left tackle Taylor Decker put a voice to in his postgame news conference Friday is one of the biggest reasons to believe in the Lions this fall.

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“I thought the energy was really, really good as a whole team,” Decker said. “I’ve been here for a little while now and there was like a little swagger about us out there and that was good to feel and good to see.”

The way I see it, there are a few reasons for the Lions’ swagger.

Campbell deserves some credit, certainly. He’s infused this team with toughness and confidence. The line plays a factor. When you can win physically in a physical sport, there’s a trickle-down effect that can’t be ignored. Decker said the atmosphere for open communication Campbell has fostered, where players aren’t scared to make mistakes and coaches believe in their troops, is part of it.

And there might be something else at play, too: Players and teams that ooze swagger generally do so for a reason. Just like when players bemoaned the Matt Patricia years and the Lions seemed destined to fail, maybe it’s time to listen to them and embrace their swagger and accept there are reasons they could be good.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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