‘I’m a team guy’: Despite benching, Brockers’ humility, leadership fuel Lions’ turnaround

Detroit News

Allen Park — The structure of the Detroit Lions’ locker room has changed little in the 20 years the team’s practice facility has been around. Sure, many of the nameplates above the stalls change annually — or in some cases, weekly — and the carpet, paint and decorations are occasionally modernized, but the location of which position groups are where remains uninterrupted.

Within that setup, certain lockers are reserved for specific players. The veterans who have been with the team the longest often get the benefit of a corner locker. Respect is unofficially measured in space, and not having another locker mate on one side establishes your standing in the pecking order.

In the farthest corner from the entrance, the defensive line lockers collide with the quarterbacks’; a unique contrast, in its own right. The corner locker against the back wall has typically belonged to the leader of the defensive front, a mantle previously held by stalwarts such as Kyle Vanden Bosch and Ndamukong Suh.

Presently, it’s the home of Michael Brockers.

Adding Brockers was one of the first moves general manager Brad Holmes made after taking the position in January 2021. It was a contract dump necessitated by a bloated cap situation for the Los Angeles Rams, the former franchise for both GM and player, so it only cost the Lions a seventh-round draft pick. And while Holmes hoped the veteran defensive tackle and former first-round pick would help fill an obvious production void in Detroit, a significant part of the general manager’s thinking was he was getting a player who could help establish a culture and set the tone for a roster that was about to be torn down to the studs and rebuilt with young, inexperienced building blocks.

The first part of that equation never came to fruition. During his first full season with the Lions, Brockers was decent, but not the disruptive force he’d been in recent years. He racked up 52 tackles in 16 starts, but only six quarterback pressures. The Lions had been desperate for a player capable of producing interior pressure, and after getting the QB off his spot an average of 33 times in his final two seasons in Los Angeles, that ability didn’t make the cross-country trip with him to Detroit.

But, the reduced impact on the field didn’t mirror what was happening in the locker room. There, Brockers embraced the leadership role Holmes and coach Dan Campbell envisioned. The vet readily took rookies Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike under his wing and never hesitated to hold teammates accountable if their practice habits or film study wasn’t living up to the standards being set.

Respect grew to the point where Brockers was selected a team captain ahead of this season — the “C” on his uniform reflecting what his locker location already foretold.

“Listen, when it comes to that defensive-line room, and all of those guys will tell you this, he is the ultimate, ultimate leader,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “He’s very unselfish; he’s a team guy.”

Unfortunately, Brockers’ production didn’t recover, and after the Lions limped out to a 1-4 start to the season, Campbell made one of the most difficult decisions a coach can, benching a captain.

Often, with a player owning that kind of resume and competitive spirit, these moves can backfire. In the worst-case scenarios, reverberations of a benching can erode trust in a coaching staff and can even fracture a locker room. In lesser cases, the player’s pride is damaged beyond repair and they request their release. Had Brockers quietly sought this option from Holmes, no one would have batted an eye.

But Brockers chose a different, more admirable route. He set aside personal disappointment in favor of fulfilling the expectations of his captaincy. He chose to lead, through any and all avenues available, playing an integral role in helping the Lions dig out of the massive hole they found themselves in to start the season.

“It’s been really impressive, but I would say I’m not shocked by it, knowing the human being,” Campbell said. “It’s one of the reasons we wanted him here. Everybody raved about the character and everything he’s about. He’s been all of that and then some. Everything he does is top-notch. He’s a pro’s pro.”

At the time of the benching, the Lions were on pace for one of the worst defensive performances in NFL history, but coming out of the team’s bye week, things started to settle down. By November, the unit truly turned things around, allowing 19.9 points per game during a stretch of six wins in seven weeks.

After the Lions topped the Giants on the road for a third consecutive victory — the team’s first such streak in five years — McNeill shared that a players-only meeting held a few weeks earlier had fueled the defensive turnaround. And while the specifics of that session weren’t initially revealed, it was later learned Brockers was one of the driving forces in putting it together.

“A lot of other guys felt like, man, this is the point of time where we need to find out who we are,” Brockers said. “We needed to find out, what’s the issue? Because I think at that point, they’d fired (defensive backs coach) Aubrey Pleasant. That was a sad day. So, we definitely wanted to see what was the issue, how are we playing, was everybody all right, mentally, going forward.

“…You just looked at the season at that point and we could have called it a year, you know?” Brockers said. “And a lot of guys felt like, man, this isn’t it; this isn’t us. I saw that and I felt the emotion that they put off and I was just like, man, let’s talk about this. If everybody feels this way, if so many people feel this way, let’s really talk about it. That was really it, man. I’m all about the team. I’m a team guy. Whatever I can do to help us win or to help us be better, that’s what I’ll do.”

Leading by example

The meet was reflective of a key cultural trait Campbell had been trying to instill with players since the offseason: Ownership. In training camp, he surprised players by having them run a practice without the guidance of the coaching staff to foster the principle. The meeting, and the results, embodied it.

“I would say that’s what this has all been about — and quite frankly, that’s what (the Rams) did,” Campbell said. “The players run that team, man. Aaron Donald, Brockers, Jalen Ramsey, those guys took ownership of that team. Sure, the foundation was built, the schematics are good, (coach Sean) McVay does a great job, but ultimately, those guys took it over because they take pride in it. They hold each other accountable.”

In addition to helping the defense find itself by opening up those lines of communication, Brockers has also been doing the dirty work on the practice field. Coinciding with his demotion, he’s been asked to play a bigger role on the scout team. That’s typically reserved for practice-squad members, young players and special-teamers, not accomplished veterans. But, if he wasn’t going to be playing on game day, he wanted to find another way to help, which meant giving everything he had to preparing his teammates for the looks they might see on Sunday.

“For that guy to put his pads right back on, and he goes out there and does scout team for us,” Campbell said. “He runs the freakin’ cards, he runs the scout team when we’re separated, doing defense on defense. He’s playing the center and working the protection. He’s literally a coach on the field.

“Every day, he’s out there early,” Campbell continued. “He’s got his pads and he’s ready to go. He gets in the building early, he gets his workouts done, he watches his tape. It’s just the way he’s wired and the young guys watch that and they see how he goes about his business. That means something.”

In the 10 weeks since the demotion, Brockers has been active on game day once, logging 12 snaps without making a dent in the stat sheet in that late-November victory over the Giants. He’s admittedly still not used to his new reality on Sunday — and probably never will be — but he’s accepted the evolution of his role and is making the best of it, still finding fulfillment through the team’s success.

“I’ve always been a guy to find my place,” Brockers said. “I had to deal with AD (Aaron Donald) coming in to the Rams and having to adjust to his skill set and playing nose (tackle). And then having Suh come in, with AD, and having to adjust, thinking, ‘OK, where do I fit within his defensive line?’ I’ve always been a guy to find his place and find value where I’m at.

“…I still enjoy the game, I still enjoy going to practice,  just being around the guys,” Brockers continued. “I do have a lot of joy and fulfillment, just how good the guys were doing, you know, moving from where we were to be in this position. I’m very proud of how they went about it.

“Man, just looking back, I still feel like I’m a leader of the D line. I’m the oldest guy and they need somebody to look up to, and I never was a person to pout, always was a hard worker coming to work. That’s who I am, and that’s what coach Campbell allowed me to be. He said, ‘You don’t have to be anybody different, just be yourself, come in and be yourself, be the leader we always wanted you to be,’ and that’s who I am.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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