Here we go again. Another Detroit Lions game, another referendum on, well, everything about this team.
Can we trust coach Dan Campbell to not make another bad decision?
Can we trust Austin Seibert to kick a field goal longer than the length of your couch?
Can we trust Jeff Okudah to lock up another top receiver? Can we trust Amani Oruwariye to draw more flags than a Fourth of July party?
On and on it goes. This is the problem with the Lions in Year 2 of their rebuild. They’re going through growing pains and growing pains are called growing pains because, of course, they hurt. The Lions are just starting to show a spark of promise, a glimmer of hope.
No, that won’t be reflected in their final record. This was never going to be anything close to a double-digit win team. But if you don’t already see improvement after three games, you’re not looking very hard.
The Lions are getting better. Yes, they could have — and probably should have — won last week’s game at Minnesota. And, as I’ve said before, I didn’t hate Campbell’s decision to attempt the field goal while facing fourth-and-4 from the Vikings’ 36-yard line.
Unlike last year’s close loss at Minnesota, which required a late rally, the Lions were in control of last week’s game until the very end. It wasn’t luck and it wasn’t a fluke. They basically ran out of healthy bodies in that game, from Tracy Walker to D’Andre Swift to Amon-Ra St. Brown.
Look at this roster. Really look at it. There’s improvement just about everywhere it matters. They needed Okudah to play better and he has. They needed Swift to play through nagging injuries and he has. They needed Goff to be better and he has (tied for seventh in intended air yards, you stat-nerd haters!).
Yes, the defense still isn’t good and gives up the most points in the NFL. The shaky secondary is only going to get worse with Walker, their defensive captain, out for the year.
I’m not saying the Lions are close to being a good team right now. I’m saying they’re trending in the right direction. They’re trending toward being respectable this season and becoming a good team that can challenge for a wild-card playoff spot … next season.
But this week’s game against the Seattle Seahawks feels like an inflection point for the Lions because there’s a rumbling among the fandom about Campbell and, to a different extent, about the team. You can sense a weariness about Campbell’s questionable decisions, like opting for Seibert’s failed field goal attempt and calling a time-out on the Eagles’ scoring drive just before halftime, then calling for a failed onside kick in the third quarter.
Let’s just take a breath here. I’m sure you’re worked up after I made you relive these situations. But even if you haven’t agreed with all of Campbell’s calls, let’s appreciate that these decisions at least contained some form of reasonable logic. It wasn’t Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind in overtime.
So I understand the frustration. But part of Campbell’s charm is that he has his own ideas about how do things. Sometimes that’s being aggressive, sometimes it’s not. Just because he’s aggressive the entire game, that doesn’t mean he can’t veer from that strategy. This isn’t “Madden.” He never took a blood oath to never punt.
As much as I’ve beat the drum on the win total not mattering much this season, I think the Lions need to beat the Seahawks this week. It’s about as close to a must-win game as you can get without calling it a must-win game, because it’s the Lions’ best chance to win one of their next five games. It’s also their last home game for a month.
If the Lions beat Seattle, they gin up excitement again in front of a home crowd. Then they could lose next week at New England, enter the Week 6 bye at 2-3 and return with healthier, rested players.
But if they lose to Seattle, the Lions could enter the bye 1-4, then face Dallas, Miami and Green Bay and roll into Chicago’s Soldier Field with a 1-7 record, a demoralized fan base and, worse, possibly a demoralized team.
And a demoralized team is the last thing Campbell can afford. I was reminded of that Thursday when offensive coordinator Ben Johnson was asked about T.J. Hockenson’s lack of production. Johnson said it was due in part to having too many offensive options. Johnson also said his selfless players didn’t care about personal stats for one reason: They want to win.
“Honestly, what we went through last year, and I hate to talk about last year right now, it’s made us better this year,” Johnson said. “We’ve dealt with that adversity and these guys, truly to a man, they all just want to win. They don’t care how it happens.
“We could run for 200 yards. We could throw for 400 — they don’t care. We could score 14 points, and … as long as we win, they’re going to be happy, so he’s in that boat. They’re all in that boat right now, and that’s what makes this so much fun to come to work every day.”
Yes, but there’s a flip side to all that selflessness. If the Lions stop winning, or at least if they stop being competitive and coming close to winning, that positivity will end. I’ve seen it many times. Frustration sets in and all that kumbaya camaraderie curdles.
It feels like the Lions, and especially Campbell, have little margin for error in this game. That’s how it goes in football. Everyone second-guesses everything. The only way Campbell and the Lions can quiet the critics is by making the kind of statement only a win can deliver.
Contact Carlos Monarrez: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter@cmonarrez.