Detroit Lions’ season is over after trading T.J. Hockenson to Minnesota Vikings

Detroit Free Press

They raised the white flag in Allen Park on Tuesday. Then they should have had the decency to immediately lower the flag to half-staff to signal a mourning period, because this Detroit Lions season has died a quick and painful death.

The tombstone, scattered in a graveyard that’s over capacity at team headquarters, might read: “RIP SOL, Sept. 11, 2022-Nov. 1, 2022.”

Indeed the 2022 season is over for the 1-6 Lions. It’s dead but not quite buried after general manager Brad Holmes traded Pro Bowl tight end T.J. Hockenson to the Minnesota Vikings for a swap of draft picks that turns their fourth-rounder into a second-rounder next year, and a conditional fourth-rounder that turns into a third-rounder in 2024.

It may have been better if the Lions had gotten a defensive player in return in the trade. That would have given the team at least some hope of still competing. But I mostly don’t have a problem with the trade, because I understand it means four things:

1. This season is now all about next season.

2. Holmes and coach Dan Campbell are safe this season, no matter what.

3. The Lions could go winless the rest of this season and finish 1-16.

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4. Holmes and Campbell’s butts just got a little hotter and their ears are ringing with the sound of a clock that’s already ticking pretty loud for 2023.

Let’s discuss the real possibility of an 0-10 finish. The only thing keeping hope alive for the Lions is the offense, and now coordinator Ben Johnson has been dispossessed of one of his most valuable chess pieces. Hockenson is 25 and in the prime of his career as a good, a sometimes very good and potentially even great tight end who played 85% of the Lions’ offensive snaps this season.

Losing Hockenson means opposing defenses can devote more attention to Amon-Ra St. Brown, Josh Reynolds, Jamaal Williams and any other potential weapons Johnson can scrounge up. The NFL’s erstwhile top offense has shown significant signs of slowing down the past three games, and that was with Hockenson on the field.

For the record, I don’t think the Lions will go winless. They’re still playing hard for Campbell and seemed to be behind their coach. But other than a Dec. 4 home game against Jacksonville, I don’t see how the Lions will be favored in any of their remaining games.

This feels a little similar to 2018, when the Lions were 3-4 at the trade deadline and Bob Quinn sent Golden Tate to Philadelphia. Losing a veteran Pro Bowl playmaker helped scuttle a decent start. The Lions went 3-6 the rest of the way, finished 6-10 and set the wheels in motion for the end of Quinn and Matt Patricia’s tenure. The Lions traded Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs the next year, and all that amounted to exactly what?

The only puzzling part of Hockenson’s trade is that it creates a positional need going into a must-win year for Holmes and Campbell. The Lions struggled for years to find a playmaking tight end before Hockenson, and now they’ll have to find another one when they already had one under contract for 2023 after they picked up Hockenson’s fifth-year option.

It’s also not like their draft-pick cupboard was bare. It’s actually flush. Before Tuesday, they held the top pick, plus the Rams’ first-rounder and their own second-rounder. With the extra Round 2 pick now, Holmes can draft a quarterback No. 1 and still trade up to take any promising injured player he desires. Sorry, too soon?

Without adding any kind of on-field help at the trade deadline, there’s no way Campbell will be able to honestly explain Wednesday how his team is better than it was on Sunday. Save the next-man-up speech for naïve zealots who’ve already lined up for 2023 season tickets.

The only truth is that the Lions made themselves worse this year for a better next year. Because it’s always next year. In fact, when the Lions’ engraver is down with the tombstone, he should chisel “it’s always next year” in Latin above the facility entrance: “suus ‘semper proximo anno!”

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That’s why this trade is disappointing. Campbell and Holmes should get a full second season with a full team to judge their progress. Holmes had to justify his job and couldn’t just sit still while the Titanic is sinking, but it’s going to be hard to judge where this team stands while it’s scattered about the Atlantic in lifeboats.

The best anyone can hope for the rest of the season is for the Lions not to get their heads kicked in every game the rest of the way. All those folks who were growing tired of Campbell saying “we’re close” probably won’t have to worry about that much longer.

Soon, Campbell’s message will change, even though the expectation already has. This season is over. We’ll have to wait and see who the Lions hire as their next defensive coordinator is, and possibly their next offensive coordinator. We’ll have to wait and see which franchise-saving quarterback the Lions draft and whether he can beat the odds, catch fire as a rookie and buy this regime a fourth season.

As everyone around here knows, those odds aren’t great. A quarterback in Los Angeles could tell you that. So could all those tombstones in Allen Park of the coaches and players whose same, old epitaphs have become hauntingly familiar: “RIP idem vetus leones.”

Contact Carlos Monarrez: Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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