Detroit Lions are running wild with Jamaal Williams, should move on from D’Andre Swift

Detroit Free Press

Upon reading my prediction of a Detroit Lions victory against the New York Giants in Sunday’s Free Press, one dear reader proffered this query in the form of electronic mail.

“You took the Lions today. Let me ask you. Do you go to bed with your head up your (expletive) or just wake up with it up there…LOL”

First, I’m not sure how this person knows so much about the precise preference of my sleeping orientation, but rest assured those fine constables on the major crimes unit of the cranium-derriere division have been alerted.

Second, the prediction of a Lions win shouldn’t have conjured the image of a sportswriter with his head in the clouds — or elsewhere — because the Giants entered the game as a fraudulent 7-2 team with only two quality wins, but naturally enjoyed the overhyped hysteria that national media bestow on every New York team in every sport every year.

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But the prediction was most obviously based on the Lions themselves. Because they have been playing better on both sides of the ball during this three-game winning streak and have finally revealed their true identity, which was right under our noses all along:

The Lions are a run-first team.

I know. That’s like removing Clark Kent’s glasses and finding out he’s just Jimmy Olsen.

Sure, everyone wants their team to be an explosive, high-flying superhero. The Lions even talked about having more explosive plays on offense this season. But we’ve all seen enough of Jared Goff to know that’s not going to happen without a lot of help from elite receivers, which the Lions lack.

Instead, the Lions have running back Jamaal Williams, a Green Bay castoff who leads the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns but probably couldn’t be identified by most fantasy owners if he walked up to them and said, “Hi, I’m Jamaal.”

Actually, Williams would say more than that. A lot more. Because he loves to talk. He’s one of the most unique, genuine athletes I’ve covered in Detroit, a roller-coaster of fun off the field and a ball of fury on it. He once offered fashion advice to a reporter who wore yellow pants, he loves “Naruto” anime, he plays catch with fans during pregame warmups, he makes reporters play rock-paper-scissors when they ask a question at the same time and he has openly shared his struggles with depression and isolation.

It’s hard not to root for him as a person because he sets the kind of example we need to see throughout sports as a player who works on his craft and on himself — when he isn’t working on getting fined for the McCringleberry celebration from “Key & Peele.”

Williams has toned down his dancing in the end zone, but not the effort that has gotten him there. He finished with just 64 yards on 17 carries against New York, but he earned those three touchdown runs with the hard-nosed, inside running that has consistently moved the Lions’ offense.

“His production speaks for itself and everything that you see and know about him is exactly who he is,” coach Dan Campbell told reporters postgame in East Rutherford, New Jersey. “He’s all heart. He’s emotion, he’s heart and he just is a steady, productive, hard-running, hard-working, smart football player.

“He’s just there again. If you just listed your most consistent players, most dependable, consistent players he would definitely be at the top of that list.”

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The list Williams wouldn’t be on top of is the most talented. In the running back room, that list is led by D’Andre Swift, who can be an electric and dynamic difference-maker when — wait for it — he’s healthy. And when is he ever healthy?

Swift had eight touches against the Giants: three catches for 12 yards and five carries for 20 yards in yet another season of frustrating unfortunate health as he deals with an ankle injury. The Lions have been pushing and urging Swift along all year and well before the season began, impressing upon him the difference between discomfort and serious injury.

The Lions have gotten by largely without Swift during this winning streak. On Sunday it was thanks to running back Justin Jackson’s 66 yards, which led to a 160-yard team rushing effort. Offensive line coach Hank Fraley accurately predicted this last week when he said the run game was tantamount to delivering body blows in the ring that wear down the opponent.

The Lions need to ask themselves an important question this offseason: Do they want to accept who they are or do they want to try to be something they may never become?

The Lions surely would love to be an elite passing team, full of downfield threats and explosive playmakers.

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But that’s not who they are. Jameson Williams might — might — help change that at some point. But for now, they have a long way to go to reach that potential.

Right now, the Lions are a run team, and a very good one at that. They have an excellent offensive line and one very good, dependable running back. What they need is a complement to Williams, the kind of change-of-pace, electric running back Swift is supposed to be.

That means what the Lions really need is the courage to accept Swift will probably never be the player they need him to be. And that means having the courage to find his replacement next year in order to make the run game even more dangerous and dependable.

I’ll tell you a little secret about making predictions for Lions games: It’s important to see the team for what it is at that moment and not for what it has been in the past or even for what it could be in the future.

Right now, without Jameson Williams or T.J. Hockenson, but with Jamaal Williams and his elite blockers, the Lions are a run team. That’s what gives them a chance and their potency. You can wait around and hope Swift gets healthy one day or the passing game catches fire or Superman shows up. Or you can simply wake up from that dream, reorient your head and realize Jimmy Olsen’s been there for you all along.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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