Detroit Lions mailbag: Does Dan Campbell need game management help?

Detroit Free Press

It’s been a while since I’ve done a mailbag, but with the calendar flipping to October it seemed like a good time to answer your questions about the Detroit Lions’ 1-2 start.

I see the Lions as a very competitive, but still flawed, team who might be a tick better than their record. They currently sit in last place in the NFC North, but don’t feel like a last-place team, though injuries are a concern (as roughly 99% of your questions alluded to).

So let’s start there, with a dump of injury news, before getting to meatier football matters:

The Lions were hit hard at the skill positions in last week’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Running back D’Andre Swift re-aggravated his ankle injury and sprained his shoulder, and head coach Dan Campbell seems to be leaning toward giving him a week or two to heal up, though I have no doubt Swift will push to play as the week goes on.

Wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Josh Reynolds also suffered ankle injuries in the game, and the fact that the Lions’ three best offensive weapons — Swift and St. Brown are both legitimate difference-makers in this league, and Jared Goff has an undeniable connection with Reynolds — are dealing with one malady or another is concerning heading into this week’s game against the Seattle Seahawks.

Reynolds told me he suffered a low ankle sprain and NFL Network reported the Lions got “encouraging” news from tests on St. Brown’s ankle Monday. If I had to venture a Tuesday morning guess, I’d say both receivers are limited in practice this week but play on Sunday while Swift gets the week off.

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As for the Lions’ other injured receiver, Jameson Williams, not much has changed on his timeline for return. Williams posted a video recently of him running and cutting in rehab. I still anticipate he’ll return to practice sometime after the bye and will be on the field around early November after his ramp-up period.

The Lions have weathered the injuries on their offensive line so far. Frank Ragnow said he was dealing with turf toe, but he returned ahead of schedule last week. Jonah Jackson’s right ring finger injury is a painful one that will have him a splint for several weeks to come, but he could return before he’s healed if he can be functional and tolerate the pain. And Halapoulivaati Vaitai is further away, if he returns at all this season, after back surgery.

Defensively, the Lions should get Jerry Jacobs back next month from his torn ACL, but I don’t sense a return is as close for Romeo Okwara, who tore his Achilles tendon a little over a year ago. Rookie Josh Paschal will need a full ramp-up period, similar to Williams, whenever he’s cleared to return from hernia surgery so the Lions are looking at another few weeks minimum before they get their second-round pick on the field.

Onto the rest of your questions (which have been edited for clarity).

What does the offense look like without St. Brown and Swift? — @averyjer77

I don’t think it will come to that this week, but if it does you’ll still see a Lions team determined to run the ball. The Lions rank third in the NFL in rushing (170.3 yards per game) through three weeks and have been able to run effectively no matter who’s in the backfield or on the offensive line. Their run game is versatile and well-schemed, and Jamaal Williams is a capable fill-in for Swift.

Losing St. Brown, or having him significantly hobbled is a bigger issue, in my opinion, because he does so much for the offense as a receiver, blocker, decoy you name it. Kalif Raymond has played as the No. 4 receiver (ahead of Quintez Cephus, who has mostly been used as a blocker this season). I don’t imagine offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s approach would change much with St. Brown out of the lineup, but quarterback Jared Goff would lose his security blanket, which could spell trouble for the passing game.

At what point can we stop blaming Campbell’s coaching mistakes on him being a new coach and start holding him accountable? Miami’s first-year coach looks just fine after beating Buffalo — @Lionsburner313

Hey Dave. I’d really like to know what you really think about the likelihood Campbell will learn from his in-game decision-making mistakes that have cost the Lions wins last year and already again this year. Do you think he’ll ever learn from his gaffes and get it right? — @davebeaudoinjr

I put these questions side by side cause they are a representation of what I heard in the airport before my flight home Monday morning and when I got in my car on the drive to the practice facility later that day.

We are all constantly learning as a product of our experiences, so I have no doubt Campbell will grow from the game-management mistakes he made against the Vikings. He’s already said he would not kick the field goal if put in the same situation again.

But the burner account’s point is one that I do think needs to be made: Campbell has spent 32 games as a head coach in the NFL, about two full seasons (including his time as interim coach with the Miami Dolphins). He is not an inexperienced coach, and his mistakes should not be chalked up to “learning on the job.” To Campbell’s credit, he has never used that as an excuse; that’s more a fan thing, and everyone seemed to be OK with it last year.

I do not have a problem with the majority of Campbell’s in-game decisions, especially when it comes to how aggressive he is on fourth downs. I prefer that to the conservative approach, and I do think there is danger in taking your foot off the accelerator too early in the second half of NFL games. There have been some situations around the end of halves (the first half against the Eagles come to mind) where the Lions need to do a better job managing the clock. But I think what you see of Campbell as a risk-taker is what you’ll get for the entirety of his time in Detroit.

Should Dan Campbell hire a game management assistant the same way that Nathaniel Hackett did in Denver? — @pfnnewmedia

I have not seen the specifics of new Denver Broncos assistant Jerry Rosburg’s duties, but his role seems similar to the one Lions director of football compliance Jon Dykema started in last year. As Campbell explained at the time, Dykema essentially served as a quality control coach for Campbell’s in-game decision-making, though Dykema did not have real-time input on game days.

There’s nothing wrong with having a “game management assistant” who provides reminders of what to do in key situations, but many of those decisions are talked out during the week and made plays (or drives) in advance.

If Campbell still was calling offensive plays, the need for someone full-time in that role might be more acute. But he said last year he makes decisions based on “feel,” and short of switching to an all-out analytical approach, I don’t know that having that sort of assistant would alter his decisions on game day.

Dan Campbell said ‘If we can just get our hands around them and drag them out to the deep abyss… we can drown them.’ He got his hands around the Vikings, dragged them out to the abyss and then gave them a life jacket. Why? — @pauliewalnuts67

I don’t have a great answer for this one, Paulie, I just liked the figurative image you painted. Campbell said he shouldn’t have throw the Vikings a life jacket on Sunday, and he’ll almost certainly go for the kill next time he’s in that situation.

If I had to guess, I’d say the Lions’ failures on fourth-and-1 on the previous series and third-and-1 earlier in the fourth quarter weighed too heavily on his mind, and maybe the injuries to St. Brown, Reynolds and Swift were a contributing factor, too.

Feels like any chance at the division slipped away on Sunday. I know it’s early but this is a game you look back at and kick yourself over — @detroit11223344

Last year, the Kansas City Chiefs started 1-2 and gave up nine points in the final 2:14 of a Week 3 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers and still went on to win the division and reach the AFC title game. This year’s Lions team isn’t as good as that Chiefs team, but we’re three games into the season. No one is out of any division race yet.

Now, Sunday’s loss was a gut punch, and I do think it’s one the Lions could be kicking themselves over late in the season when they should be in the playoff hunt. But they have a chance to make up some ground with winnable games the next two weeks against the Seahawks and Patriots. If the Lions head into the bye week 3-2 and come back healthy, it should set up for a fun fall.

What are the biggest offseason moves the Lions will need to make with their 2 first-round picks? — @DetroitStrong55

Draft talk in September. One of these days that won’t be a thing in Detroit.

In all seriousness, the Lions have a golden opportunity to add two more long-term pieces to their roster next April. Obviously, a quarterback could be in play, though Goff has played well enough this season to think he could be the QB in 2023 and beyond.

Looking forward, I’d guess the Lions have one pick in the teens (their own) and one in the 20s (the Rams), with potential needs to address on all three levels of defense, at running back and at offensive guard. They will hit take care of one or more of those needs in free agency, so if they’re comfortable with Goff they could go defense heavy early in next year’s draft.

What did Amon-Ra’s dad have to say about Tracy’s non-contact Achilles tear? — @dkaaf

Great “Hard Knocks” reference. Paging Kevin Durant to find out.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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