Wojo: In chaotic NFL, can Lions actually start climbing?

Detroit News

Detroit — It’s been topsy, turvy and even a little tipsy. Halfway through the season, the Lions have revealed all sides of who they are, and a few interesting signs of who they can be.

They’re 3-6 and on a two-game winning streak for the first time in two-plus years. Their offense and defense take turns rising and falling. They’re emblematic of a crazy NFL season that has taken the ol’ On-Any-Given-Sunday-Monday-Thursday trope to higher levels. The league is on a record pace for one-possession outcomes (margins of eight points or less), including the Lions’ 31-30 victory at Chicago.

We live in unprecedented times, and the Lions are trying to do unprecedented things, at least by their standard. They’re trying to convince us — by actions, not words — that they’re figuring things out. They’re shooting for their first three-game winning streak since 2017. They have our divided attention, and if they win either of the next two — at the Giants, home against Buffalo on Thanksgiving — they’ll have our undivided attention.

Weird, right? A 3-6 team clinging to possibilities after painfully tight losses against the league’s third-toughest schedule. The Lions lost by three, four, three and four to the Eagles, Vikings, Seahawks and Dolphins, who are a combined 29-9. Winnable games remain — even the Giants, who are 7-2 but far from dominating — along with Jacksonville, Carolina, Chicago again and Green Bay again. If I felt like teasing, I’d point out the Lions are only two games out of a wild-card spot behind the 49ers (5-4), but I’m not that obnoxious.

Dan Campbell and GM Brad Holmes haven’t achieved anything notable yet, 6-19-1 in a year and a half. Progress isn’t revealed in the record. It wasn’t revealed on “Hard Knocks” either, which was entertaining but misleading. “Grit” is the mandatory baseline for a football team, a trait you happily tout until talent arrives.

Progress occurs when a team starts flashing young talent, and the young talent starts popping a few big plays, and a few big plays are what it takes to win close games. I think there’s a chance — please don’t use this against me — that the Lions have legitimate young talent rising together, particularly on defense. They’ve resisted the urge to plug-and-play with lots of veterans, which is what Quinn-tricia futilely tried to do.

Out of necessity and common sense, the Lions are finding out what they have, and the more we see of Holmes’ draft picks — Aidan Hutchinson, Kerby Joseph, Malcolm Rodriguez, Josh Paschal, Penei Sewell, Alim McNeill and the greatest fourth-round pick in Lions history, Amon-Ra St. Brown — the more we like. If first-rounder Jameson Williams, the Alabama speedster recovering from knee surgery, returns as a game-breaker, it’s officially a haul.

More:The Detroit News’ 2022 Detroit Lions midseason grades

Hutchinson, the No. 2 overall pick from Michigan, is getting more comfortable and was fully disruptive against the Bears. He leads all NFL rookies with 5.5 sacks. Joseph, the third-round safety from Illinois, is proving to be a feisty ball-hawker, with two interceptions. Rodriguez, the sixth-round linebacker from Oklahoma State, is third on the team in tackles.

The Lions already have a foundation on offense with their line, led by Sewell, Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker. Yes, they still have a quarterback conundrum (more on that in a moment). But defense has been the elephant pile in the room, and it could be evolving from hopeless to not-totally-hopeless, as coordinator Aaron Glenn has made adjustments. When healthy, the Lions start four rookies on defense, and you can add Jeff Okudah to the youthful mix. The No. 3 overall pick in 2020 isn’t having the impact of, say, Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa (more on that in a moment), but since recovering from Achilles surgery, he’s showing signs of impending stardom.

“(Okudah) is playing physical, he’s making plays out there, and he’s just so much more comfortable and confident right now,” Campbell said. “He’s trending the right way, but you saw a lot of plays out of our young guys. … They’re growing, and I think, more importantly, they’re growing together and they’re starting to figure each other out. I feel like they’re beginning to mesh a little bit here and gain steam.”

Even when the Lions aren’t playing, they might be gaining. I hate the notion of tanking, an unhealthy activity that has turned too many Lions fans into incorrigible Tankaholics. No need to debate it now. After the Lions did Matthew Stafford a favor and sent him to a Super Bowl team, the Rams are returning the favor and tanking for the Lions. They’re 3-6, with Cooper Kupp out and Stafford banged up, and their first-round pick headed to Detroit isn’t going to be 32nd again. It could be top 10, along with the Lions’ own first-rounder. With an additional 2023 second-round pick from the Vikings in the T.J. Hockenson trade, the Lions’ draft capital is a major asset.

The quarterback question

Of course, it’s still unclear if they have an above-average asset at quarterback. Jared Goff is top 10 in most statistical categories (eighth with a 93.7 QB rating) and for every sloppy effort like in the 29-0 loss to New England, he rebounds with a sharp, gutsy effort, like against Chicago.

Through four games, the Lions were leading the NFL in offense. Goff stays! Then the offense stalled and tallied six points total in back-to-back losses. Goff goes!

This was the season the Lions had to learn whether Goff could be their man going forward, and I think it definitely, probably, most likely remains murky. I’ve never understood why the Lions don’t draft quarterbacks and groom them if they’re not ready, or grab a ready one high in the draft. That goes back to 2020 and Bob Quinn’s shortsighted selection of Okudah, who’s admirably redeeming himself. Two picks later, at No. 5, the Dolphins drafted Tagovailoa, who leads the league in passer rating (118.4) for the 7-3 Dolphins.

No sense crying over that. And in my opinion, no sense crying over Holmes’ bypassing of Justin Fields in 2021. The former Ohio State quarterback is piling up historic rushing totals for the Bears, but his run-first, pass-poorly (58.9% completion percentage) combo is unsettling, and his pick-six to Okudah turned Sunday’s game.

The dilemma remains. Keep Goff another year — he’s signed through 2024 — or let him go with a modest $10-million salary-cap hit? I doubt the Lions know yet, so the final eight games are key. The free-agent quarterback options are meager, unless you want someone like Jimmy Garoppolo or Baker Mayfield. The trade options are remote because the Ravens aren’t letting Lamar Jackson go and the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray is way too risky. In the draft, the Lions might have a shot at one of the top prospects — Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Kentucky’s Will Levis, Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker — but for all their hype, I don’t see a consensus No. 1.

Nothing really starts for the Lions until their quarterback quandary ends, and in that regard, not much has changed. Perhaps the issue settles itself and Goff earns another year. Unless you think Young or Stroud are certain stars (I don’t), the Lions aren’t forced to leap for one. They won’t have a definitive direction until they have a definitive quarterback, but in the meantime, their young players are selling hope and buying time.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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