It’s easy to forget how deep a rebuild Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell undertook when they were hired to fix the Detroit Lions two Januarys ago.
The Lions were coming off three straight last-place finishes in the NFC North and the organization was something no one wanted to be a part of after Matt Patricia alienated players and fans.
Holmes and Campbell traded their franchise quarterback, at his behest, to the Los Angeles Rams, and while that move was the only way to give the franchise the full reset it needed, it sent everyone back to square one in this real-life game of Chutes and Ladders.
The Lions have encountered more snakes and trapdoors in the 21 months since that trade and no one is or should be happy with their disappointing 1-4 record at the bye. The Lions blew a winnable game against the Minnesota Vikings because of coaching malfeasance and that loss compounded into two more the past two weeks against sub-.500 teams the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots.
This week’s bye comes at the perfect time, not just for the Lions to get healthy — D’Andre Swift and Amon-Ra St. Brown are among those who should benefit greatly from the time off — but for the pall of disenchantment to give way to the reality of the rebuild.
To be clear, no one in the organization has written off this season, and given the state of the NFC North, there’s no reason they should.
Neither Campbell nor Holmes should be in any danger at this point of their tenures in Detroit. They were tasked with pouring a new foundation and expected to build something special from there, and even if their vision seems blurred right now, 22 games is not enough time to considering tearing their work down.
The does not mean Campbell and Holmes should be spared criticism. Both have made missteps in their time on the job.
Holmes’ appetite for injury risk and acumen picking free agent receivers are dubious at best, and Campbell’s game management skills have caused many to question his chops as head coach.
Both men deserve the rest of this season and next to bring their vision to life, but Year 3 is shaping up to be a telltale year for this Lions regime. Without real, tangible progress, one or both could be out of a job.
That’s the way things work in the NFL, where winning eventually becomes the only thing that matters and losing is easier to stomach in theory than it is when it happens on the field.
The Vikings look like the class of the division entering Sunday’s games, and the Lions had them beaten, on the road, only to give them life on fourth-and-4.
The Green Bay Packers are a much frailer version of the team that’s dominated the division for most of the past decade, though they will remain dangerous as long as Aaron Rodgers is playing quarterback.
And the Chicago Bears are one of the four worst teams in football, even if they have a better record than the Lions for now.
The Lions return from the bye and hop right into the heart of a schedule that features games against five playoff contenders in the next six weeks. They visit the Dallas Cowboys, host the Miami Dolphins and Packers, travel to the Bears and New York Giants, then return home to face the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving Day.
Film review:What’s behind Lions’ fourth down struggles
Most likely, the Lions will be an afterthought in the playoff race by the time your turkey is finished, but there’s a sliver of a chance their upcoming slate — which could start with games against backup quarterbacks in Dallas and Miami — will make them relevant in December for the first time in years.
As the bye week wraps, here are a few final thoughts on what the Lions have done well so far, what hasn’t gone so hot and what needs to be fixed.
● Last week’s shutout aside, Ben Johnson has been a revelation as offensive coordinator. The Lions rank third in points per game (28 ppg) and total offense (411.8 ypg), and their productiveness has sometimes defied logic given the injuries they’ve dealt with and who they have playing quarterback.
Give Johnson (and Campbell) credit for playing to their superpower — the offensive line. This is a pass-first league, and the Lions have done that well at times this season. But they are running the ball more effectively than they have since Barry Sanders was in the backfield, and doing it in a variety of schemes and with rotating parts at running back (Swift has missed the past two games with a sprained shoulder) and up front (the Lions have started four combinations on their line already this year).
Swift should return after the bye. He missed four games with a sprained shoulder last season, and Campbell has promised to tweak Swift’s usage patterns to try and keep him healthy the rest of the season.
“When Swift comes back, you be very particular on what plays you’re giving him, most bang for his buck that isn’t putting a load on him to where he gets exposed to injury,” he said last week.
● One issue the Lions must fix coming out of the bye, and it’s a curious one given their strength up front, is their struggles running the ball in short-yardage situations.
The Lions rank 28th in the NFL in power rushing plays, according to Football Outsiders. That’s a stat that charts a team’s success on third- or fourth-and-2 or less and short goal-to-go situations that achieve a first down or touchdown. The Lions are converting only 53% of those runs, with three first downs in six run attempts on fourth-and-1, and one in three tries on third-and-1.
More stability on the Lions’ interior offensive line should help, and if they get that fixed, that would cut down on the number of times Campbell feels the need to try and convert on fourth down.
● Individually, one player the Lions need more from on offense is DJ Chark. The Lions’ top free-agent addition of the offseason, Chark has seven catches for 98 yards this season. He missed the past two games with pain in his surgically-repaired ankle, got shut out on four targets in a Week 2 win over Washington and generally has seemed to be out of rhythm with Jared Goff this season.
Jameson Williams’ pending return, likely in November, should add some spice to the offense, but the Lions need more out of Chark in the meantime to lessen the burden on Swift and St. Brown. Chark said there is nothing structurally wrong with his ankle, but it’s not a good sign the joint still is giving him problems a year after the injury.
● The biggest addition the Lions likely will make this fall isn’t Williams, but someone else returning from a torn ACL — cornerback Jerry Jacobs.
Jacobs was arguably the Lions’ best cornerback as an undrafted rookie last season and the secondary is in desperate need of help with Amani Oruwariye struggling, Jeff Okudah still finding his footing and depth an issue. Jacobs should be back for next week’s game against the Cowboys, and if I’m the Lions I’d be tempted to start him immediately.
Oruwariye was a healthy scratch for last week’s loss to the Patriots, and his replacement, Will Harris, has a 106.8 passer rating against this season, according to Pro Football Reference. Jacobs is a feisty, physical cornerback who will not be a liability against the run, something the Cowboys offense does well.
As for Oruwariye, it’s too early to write him off for the rest of the season, but this might go down as one of the worst contract years ever. If his issues are simply a matter of trying too hard for that big payday that’s within his grasp, perhaps this break will do him good.
● The Lions were better defensively against the Patriots than they were the first four weeks of the season, but they were playing against a rookie third-string quarterback who was running an ultra-conservative game plan and they still allowed six scoring drives. I’ll wait to see what happens the next few weeks before saying the defense has turned a corner.
As bad as the secondary has been, the Lions’ biggest issue defensively is the lack of pressure they’ve gotten up front. The Lions’ last sack came 30 seconds into the fourth quarter of their Week 3 loss to the Vikings, when Alex Anzalone came on a delayed blitz as Kirk Cousins held the ball too long on a slow-developing play with nobody open downfield.
Aside from their four-sack first half against Washington, the Lions have not gotten sustained pressure on any quarterback this season. Charles Harris is dealing with a groin injury, Aidan Hutchinson has not had the type of impact you’d expect from a No. 2 overall pick and the injured John Cominsky is the only other lineman with a sack.
The way things look now, the Lions will need to spend big (in free agency or the draft) to address their pass rush again next spring.
● Another area the Lions need to invest in this offseason: The kicking game.
The Lions were spoiled by employing Jason Hanson and Matt Prater as their kickers for the better part of three decades, but having a reliable leg is such an underrated part of today’s game. It’s absurd the Lions are on their sixth kicker dating back to training camp and we’re only five games into the year. And it probably will cost the Lions an early Day 3 pick if they want to land the best kicker in next year’s draft.
The Lions’ kicking problems are so pronounced they should give everyone a greater appreciation for punter Jack Fox. Fox ranks in the top 10 in both gross and net punting average, hasn’t had a touchback this year and is a bonafide weapon on fake punts, as Bill Belichick said last week.
Compared to his peers around the league, Fox is one of the best players on this team.
● Final thing to munch on during the bye: Goff has played well this season. He has 11 touchdown passes. He’s throwing the ball downfield more willingly. He’s far down the list of Lions concerns.
But Goff’s meltdown against Belichick (again) and the Patriots was a reminder of where he stands in the quarterback hierarchy. Quarterbacks are entitled to bad games, but good ones tend to pick their teams up when they need it most. Last week was one of those times, and Goff was one of the players that let the Lions down.
With five turnovers in five games and one of the lowest completion percentages in the league (59.7%), these last 12 games will go a long way towards determining what the Lions do at the most important position on the field next seasy.