Antwaan Randle El can’t remember the details, but he can remember the feeling.
The Detroit Lions wide receivers coach was in his playing days with the Washington football team when the organization rid itself of a player in a move that put everyone on notice.
The transaction was met with bewilderment in the locker room, but it also lit a fire under players and served as the impetus for a small winning streak.
“It was like, ‘Why now?’” Randle El said this week. “But even in that, we won the next three games so you’re like the hope is always there. Opportunity is there. You got a game and you got a chance to still get in, you go play and you go play to win. And you prepare to win. So I did feel that way and we got on a roll, won three games or whatever. But we want to win more here.”
The Lions will cap off what head coach Dan Campbell admitted was “kind of a tough week” Sunday when they host the Green Bay Packers at Ford Field in a battle of two of the NFL’s most disappointing teams.
The Packers are 3-5 and look nothing like the Super Bowl contenders most figured they’d be at the start of the season. Two-time reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers has struggled to jell with a new cast of receivers while playing behind a battered offensive line, and the Packers’ talent-rich defense can’t stop the run.
The Lions,1-6 and owners of the worst record in the NFL, started the week by firing a position coach (Aubrey Pleasant) and trading one of their most productive and popular players (T.J. Hockenson). They’re down several of their top weapons in the passing game and have given up more points than anyone in the league.
Eleven days after owner Sheila Hamp made a rare public appearance to show support for the organization’s leadership, the Lions are at a crossroads: The franchise clearly is focused on the future, collecting draft assets at the expense of fielding the best team it can now, while players and coaches are trying to win games and save their jobs.
MORE FROM BIRKETT:Lions get meager return for T.J. Hockenson, set up for big future payoff
“Honestly, I haven’t seen too much change as far as the demeanor of everybody and mood and stuff,” Lions receiver Josh Reynolds said. “Yeah, we lost a guy in T.J., but you don’t see too many people just kind of sulking and stuff. He had to make what’s best for him, the team had to make what’s best for the team. We go to the next day, try to get better without him and guys step up.”
The Lions will need playmakers on both sides of the ball to step up Sunday if they are going to end a five-game losing streak that is tied for the longest in the NFL.
Reynolds is doubtful to play because of a back injury, and with Hockenson gone, that likely leaves the Lions without their two leading receivers from a yardage standpoint and three of the four pass catchers who opened the season in starting roles.
Hockenson’s replacement, second-year tight end Brock Wright, must clear concussion protocol before he can play Sunday, while Kalif Raymond and Tom Kennedy are expected to join Amon-Ra St. Brown as the Lions’ starting receivers.
“I feel like a lot of us, almost everyone on this team, we’re just going out there trying to compete and win games,” St. Brown said. “We don’t see it as the Lions trying to tank the season or whatever. I mean, they made the decision up there and whatever it is, we’re rolling with it and that just means we got to step up and make more plays.”
The Packers have struggled to make plays all season despite having a future Hall of Famer — and noted Lions killer — at the helm.
Rodgers already has matched his interception total from last season and is on pace to throw for his fewest yards since his injury-shortened season of 2017. The Packers, who traded top receiver Davante Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders this offseason and have tried unsuccessfully to replace him with two rookies, are averaging 18.1 points per game, their fewest since taking Rodgers in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft.
As bad as Green Bay’s offense, scoring 21 or fewer points in five games this season, has been, Lions defenders said this week they are not buying into the Packers’ demise.
“It’s kind of give and take with that,” he said. “I feel like in my mind you kind of are a little weary of buying into that they’re in a slump just cause it is Aaron Rodgers and they do have those two really good running backs, they have a solid tight end and they have receivers that can catch the ball. … I’m a little tentative to buy into that slump.”
Each team is hoping the other can be a slump-buster this week.
Randle El insisted he still thinks the Lions have a chance to make the playoffs, something the New York Times gives them a 2% chance of doing currently.
And assistant head coach Duce Staley dismissed the notion the Lions could be in trouble facing a desperate Packers team that needs a win if it is going to make the postseason for the fourth straight year and 12th time in 15 seasons since Rodgers took over as starter.
“We’re desperate,” Staley said. “Yeah, I can’t worry about them. We’re a desperate team each and every week.”
Next up: Packers
Matchup: Lions (1-6) vs. Green Bay (3-5).
Kickoff: 1 p.m. Sunday; Ford Field, Detroit.
TV/radio: Fox; WXYT-FM (97.1).
Line: Packers by 3½.