Detroit Lions observations: Here’s what players got from practicing without coaches

Detroit Free Press

Well, that was one of the more unique practices I’ve ever seen.

Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell turned practice Monday over to his players — to the point there were no assistant coaches on the field.

Campbell was there, observing from afar, and one Lions assistant (I think it was safeties coach Brian Duker) popped his head briefly out on the second-floor balcony of the team’s Allen Park practice facility.

But with a dozen or so players getting a day off after playing heavy snaps in Saturday’s preseason win over the Indianapolis Colts and a handful of others nursing injuries, the Lions got their regular first-practice-after-a-game workload done in fun fashion.

“I mean, training camp, couple days after the game, you come out here and you just try to get some situations in and maybe there’s certain things that you want to look at,” left tackle Taylor Decker explained. “Maybe you want to look at a couple screens or something like that, and come out here, get some good individual work, get a sweat going, get your body moving cause (Tuesday’s practice is) going to be a good workday for us. So we’ve had days like this before, just not with us running it.”

If your initial instinct is to wonder why the Lions would waste a training camp practice on a day like Monday, I get it. There’s a season to get ready for, and a practice like Monday’s seems counterintuitive for coaches who routinely put in 100-hour work weeks this time of year.

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But there’s something to be said for empowering players and making football fun, and it’s not like Monday’s practice was romper room.

After stretching, the Lions went through their regular individual period then had two different team periods split up by six plays of seven-on-seven before closing with situational football.

Coaches scripted plays for practice, but players led individual drills — Jarrad Davis, for instance, ran linebackers through bag drills, and Tom Kennedy threw passes to receivers in receiver drills — and handled the walkie-talkie duties on the sideline. Tim Boyle and David Blough took turns calling plays into Jared Goff’s helmet, and Shaun Dion Hamilton handled at least one of the periods on defense.

“That was fun today,” Boyle said. “David and I really enjoy doing that. We hear it all the time and it’s not as easy, obviously, as it looks. Conceptualizing the play and kind of spitting it out calmly and not doing it too fast is definitely an art, so give all the offensive coordinators around the league definitely a shout out.”

More than getting a better sense for how hard some of their coaches jobs are, Monday’s practice seemed valuable for the sense of ownership it gave players about this team.

Campbell and others have referenced having player-driven leadership before — my first thought watching practice was the old Tom Izzo line: A player-coached team is better than a coach-coached team — and Monday’s practice was that in a nutshell.

“I think them doing that shows that there is already an established level of trust between players and coaches, and obviously players to players,” Decker said. “They trust us to go out here and work like professionals and not be stupid and offensive vs. defensive line, we’re out here in shells, we’re not going to go cut somebody ’cause the coaches aren’t out. Just good trust all around. I’ve said it multiple times before throughout camp is it’s just been a good atmosphere established for open communication and I think that builds trust in one another.”

Campbell did not explain his practice plan to reporters in his pre-practice media availability, but he modeled Monday’s practice after something Bill Parcells did during his coaching days, often after a poor practice as a way to force players to take more ownership with their team.

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At one point during the situational work to end practice, Michael Brockers pleaded, “Coach, we need you on this,” when Amani Oruwariye disputed whether DJ Chark caught a pass.

But practice ran smooth and players will be back out Tuesday for a more typical workout before they turn their attention to Sunday’s preseason finale against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“He just told us (in our team meeting), he was like this is like the periods we want out of practice and the coaches won’t be out there,” Decker said. “He pretty much just left it at that so we’re like, ‘Uh, OK.’ But like I said, we come out here and we work every day. It doesn’t matter if the coaches are out here or not, we know what to do and how to do it. Obviously, we need coaches, but we shouldn’t need them out here to be able to get good work in because we’re professionals. I don’t need a cheerleader to get me to go. It was pretty cool. I’ve never seen anything like it, so it was fun to get out here.”

Observations from Lions’ camp Monday

• As mentioned, the Lions sat several players who took a heavy workload in Saturday’s game against the Colts. Among those who did not take part in team drills: Blough, Boyle, Kennedy, Jermar Jefferson, Shane Zylstra, James Mitchell, Tommy Kraemer, Logan Stenberg, Dan Skipper, Kendall Lamm, Bobby Price, Juju Hughes, Bruce Hector, Austin Bryant and Eric Banks.

Levi Onwuzurike, C.J. Moore, Ifeatu Melifonwu and Julian Okwara remain out with injuries, but Devin Funchess and Quintez Cephus returned after sitting out the Colts game.

• Asked what coaching points he had for Goff, Boyle said, “He had a clean day. I’ll be honest with you, he had a clean day. Thought he threw the ball accurately, didn’t give us much lip back from the play call standpoint, led our team down in two-minute, we won the drill and that’s all you can ask for as a quarterback coach/OC/backup quarterback.”

Goff was a 6-for-6 in seven-on-seven drills with four touchdowns, a sign that perhaps the defense missed having coordinator Aaron Glenn on the field. He threw touchdowns to Kalif Raymond (twice), Cephus and Josh Reynolds and he drove the offense for the potential game-winning field goal in the situational period.

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The offense started at first-and-10 on its own 45-yard line, down 22-20, with 19 seconds on the clock. After an incomplete pass to Reynolds, he hit Chark for a 20-yard gain down the middle on the play Oruwariye disputed. (I thought it was a catch, for the record.)

With 8 seconds left, Goff threw one more pass, a quick out to Hockenson to pick up a few more yards and set up the would-be field goal, though the Lions did not attempt the kick.

• One of the most notable things about Monday’s practice: How quiet it was. There was no music, no whistles and no chattering back-and-forth between assistant coaches like Glenn and Duce Staley.

• Campbell said the Lions have a physical practice planned for Tuesday in their only night practice of training camp. With a second round of roster cuts coming early Tuesday (probably only one or two players) and the final cut to 53 next week, Campbell said the night practice was simply a break from the norm near the end of camp.

“Just to change it up,” he said. “We’re in the fourth week of training camp, and so I think to those guys to be — you’re not under the lights but yet the sun’s going down a little bit, and it just, it’s a changeup. I always as a player enjoyed night practice and everybody I was ever around did, so I think it will be good. We’ll be full pads. It’ll be — we’ll be going. And really, it’s going to be our last really good Detroit vs. Detroit practice we’re going to have for camp.”

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

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