Allen Park — The lingering image from the Detroit Lions’ victory over the Minnesota Vikings last Sunday is offensive tackle Penei Sewell doing a belly flop near the sideline, moments after coming down with his first career reception.
Trick plays are fun, and exponentially more so when a team finds a way to incorporate one of the big fellas. Taking it a step further, when that play helps seals the game, it can border on iconic. Still images of Sewell plummeting to the Earth already have become the inspiration of multiple internet memes.
Even prior to the catch, Sewell had cemented himself one of the faces of Detroit’s rebuild. The first draft pick of general manager Brad Holmes’ tenure, the second-year offensive tackle began delivering on his lofty promise almost immediately. Catching a pass, after being put in motion prior to the snap, was simply a further showcase of Sewell’s freakish athleticism.
With fans in a frenzy as the Lions’ rebuild turns the corner into competitiveness and relevancy, much of the buzz is about the new breed leading the charge. There’s Sewell, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Aidan Hutchinson. Even rookie receiver Jameson Williams had the Ford Field crowd chanting his name before he recorded his first catch.
That’s what we do, media and fans alike, we get enamored by what is shiny and new. It’s human nature. It’s the opening scene of “Toy Story,” when Andy gets a Buzz Lightyear for his birthday and unknowingly knocks Woody, his longtime standby, off the side of the bed.
In the organization, the longest-tenured Lions aren’t forgotten. They’re appreciated, valued and recognized, even if there aren’t many of them left. Following that victory over the Vikings, Lions coach Dan Campbell made sure those veterans were acknowledged publicly. Among them, he praised veterans Frank Ragnow, Romeo Okwara, C.J. Moore, Jason Cabinda, Jarrad Davis and Taylor Decker for leading the way with the team’s recent turnaround.
“I just don’t ever want that to be lost,” Campbell said. “Those guys are damn good players for us, but they’ve been outstanding in the locker room. They’re great leaders, and they’re workers, and they set the tone for everybody, and those young bucks just fall right in line.”
Selected in the first round of the 2016 draft, Decker has been here two years longer than any player on the roster. When the Lions tore things down to the studs, he was one of those studs, at one of the more important positions on the field.
In many ways, he’s the forgotten man of the rebuild. He’s the one who has suffered through the lows, but never wanted to leave, the one who wanted to help fuel the turnaround.
“I’ve said from Day One when I was drafted that I wanted to be one of those guys that was in one place for 10-12 years,” Decker said. “I think there’s something to be said going through those tough games and getting to be a part of the solution. I’m excited for that. It makes our most recent success, even though it’s a small sample size, it’s been pretty sweet. Us, as a team the last two years, we’ve had to go through a lot of s— to dig ourselves out of that. I have that dating back for six years. It’s gratifying, for sure.”
The attention being paid to Sewell doesn’t bother Decker. In fact, he’s thrilled for his teammate, remembering his own experiences and the spotlight that comes with being the inaugural first-round pick for a new regime. And like Sewell, Decker had immediate success as a rookie. Plus the Lions went to the playoffs that year. Things were looking so good.
But the following offseason, Decker suffered a shoulder injury during the offseason and rushed himself back too quickly. It took him a couple of years to regain his form. It’s been even longer for the Lions, who haven’t been back to the postseason since his rookie year.
But since about 2019, Decker has been the model of consistency, the defining trait for a quality offensive lineman. He’s long been stellar in pass protection and he’s really upped his run blocking in recent years.
“He’s always been good in the run game, but this year, he’s been mauling,” teammate Frank Ragnow said. “There have been a lot of plays where he’s driving guys 10, 15 yards downfield. He’s creating a lot of the movement in our run game and has been a really valuable piece there. That’s been huge.”
By playing at that level, Decker has steadily raised the bar for his performance, and by continually meeting those expectations, it’s also resulted in him going unnoticed. And with the Lions performing so poorly while he was blossoming as a player, individual recognition never came.
Well, that’s not entirely true. He did land a lucrative contract extension from the Lions. But his name rarely comes up in national conversation about the best players at his position and he’s never been selected to the Pro Bowl. In this year’s fan voting, several Lions are among the top 10 at their positions, including Sewell, but Decker is not among them. And it drives him crazy.
“It bothers me every day,” Decker said. “And it will never not bother me. That’s just, I don’t know, for whatever reason, I haven’t gotten that pub. There’s nothing I can do about it other than play the best brand of football that I can. I feel like for multiple seasons I have done that. It will always bother me, and it will be something that drives me, but when I hang it up, I’ll always be able to lay my head on the pillow and be 100% comfortable with the fact I believe I played at a high level and had the respect of my teammates and opponents.”
Ragnow, one of those players who joined the Lions two years after Decker, has leaned heavily on his teammate through the years. Ragnow is the captain, but Decker is the voice of wisdom Ragnow turns to when he needs positive reinforcement or a fiery speech to provide an extra spark heading into a game day.
“I don’t know if I could it without Deck,” Ragnow said. “I think he’s one of the top tackles in this league, and for some reason, I don’t know why, not many people talk about him. He’s as consistent as it gets, he’s the definition of toughness and he’s a leader. He’s incredible. He’s an incredible teammate. He gets me through a lot, so I’m very grateful.”
Ragnow and Decker had traveled the low roads together the past several seasons. Viewed as two of the roster’s toughest and most hard-working players, it hasn’t been easy. When football is your life, and football is going poorly, it’s a difficult-to-describe mental drain. So as the Lions finally start experiencing some success, Campbell has been thrilled for those veterans, in particular Decker.
“He’s the player who’s been around here the longest and he saw some earlier success and then there were some rough times,” Campbell said. “Now to be able to just kind of have some hope back, that’s probably the best way to say it. I know he’s having fun, but he’s very much invested in this team, man. He’s all in. But that’s one of the guys you want to win for. I mean, you want to help him get there. Well, we appreciate it, man. He’s putting in the work, he’s all in and he’s a true pro.”
With the Lions climbing into the playoff race, winning five of their past six games, there’s been a surge of national attention. This week, Campbell was a guest on the “Pat McAfee Show” and Decker joined the popular podcast “Pardon My Take.”
Echoing comments made earlier about being part of the turnaround, it’s gratifying to see people taking notice. But Decker can’t let go of the last several years and how analysts and opponents talked about this team. That will be a continuing source of fuel for the remainder of his career.
“I like it, but ultimately I’m going to remember all the times we were the butt of the joke on ESPN and ‘Good Morning Football,’ when everybody was sh—— on us,” Decker said. “That’s what I’m going to remember. We, in this locker room, got ourselves out of that. And it’s a small sample size, and it’s something we have to find a way to sustain over a longer time, but I would say I’ll remember that more.
“…It’s great, we appreciate it, but I’m going to remember getting s— on,” Decker said. “I’m going to remember people making fun of us. I’m going to remember winning games and teams going, ‘How did we lose to the Lions? What’s going on?’ That’s what I’m going to remember.”
More than anything, he doesn’t want to feel that way again.