Jamaal Williams cried during training camp last summer. And cursed.
“Every time I get tired, or I think I can’t go no more, I think of that (expletive) record,” he told his huddled teammates after practice. “Last year wasn’t it. That ain’t us. We can make it.”
The speech went viral and endeared him to Detroit Lions fans everywhere. The connection grew deeper with every touchdown — Williams led the NFL last season with 17 rushing TDs, a new team record.
Taylor Decker said he was one of the best teammates he’d ever had. Dan Campbell called him the ultimate team guy.
“He’s an energy guy,” said Campbell, “… one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever been around.”
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Williams will be missed, by his coach, the Lions’ locker room, the media — he is a great quote — and perhaps goal-line huddles. New Orleans should enjoy his presence.
But Williams will be 28 in a few weeks, about the age that most running backs start down the backside of their peak. Williams wanted a three-year deal. Brad Holmes and Campbell are gambling his record-setting production won’t last three more years.
They believe they signed a similar, but younger version of Williams in David Montgomery. The former Bears back isn’t quite the up-field steamroller that Williams is, nor is he quite the quirky, fun-loving personality.
Besides, if the Lions’ culture falls apart because it loses a single personality who’s not the quarterback, then it isn’t the culture we think it is — or, more critically, they think it is.
The truth is Montgomery may be a more productive back than Williams, at least between the 20-yard lines. He has more wiggle, a little more vision, better hands and can line up in the slot and run a solid route.
He is also, by all accounts, a good locker-room guy who has been honored for his community work and was known within the Bears’ organization as a relentless offseason grinder. Qualities we know Holmes and Campbell covet.
Signing Montgomery, 25, to a three-year deal isn’t just a gamble on his abilities and presence, though. It’s a gamble Holmes and Campbell made on themselves, on their eye, on what they think they can get out of players.
For all of Williams’ passion and unfiltered glee, he credited Campbell for bringing part of it out of him.
“It’s not always gonna be sunshine all the time,” Williams said of his former coach, speaking to the NFL Network in January. “Some days you’re gonna be like, what is wrong with this man? I don’t want to do this. When you get out there, you get the motivation and see that he just wants to bring the beast out of you, bring the dog out of you, bring that extra motivation that you didn’t know you had.”
Focus on the words “dog” and “beast” here if you like, it’s understandable. The key to the quote, however, is this:
“… he just wants to … bring that extra motivation that you didn’t know you had.”
Translation: Campbell and Holmes are the culture. It’s why Williams loved it in Detroit, and why the players Holmes did re-sign — John Cominsky, Isaiah Buggs, Will Harris, Alex Anzalone — talked about how much they wanted to return.
Campbell said during his season-ending interview he thought the vibe of the team would make players want to sign here. It’s too early to tell whether this is true for top-dollar free agents because Holmes and Campbell aren’t ready to pursue them in free agency just yet.
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The emphasis remains on the draft, and on bringing back their own players for the most part and that’s often the more underrated part of this time of year. It makes sense.
Sustainability is most often achieved this way. And as much as some may want the organization to take a shot with higher-profile players, especially defensive ones, remember that the defense got better the second half of the season — a lot better.
The Lions gave up 32.1 points per game in their 1-6 start, worst in the NFL, and a rate headed toward historical ignominy. They gave up 20.7 points per game the next nine games, which made them a top-15 defense the rest of the way.
The one blemish came in Carolina, when the Panthers ran for more than 300 yards, and it cost the Lions a playoff spot. So, yeah, they’ve got work to do.
Holmes started that work by signing cornerback, Cam Sutton. He will help. He also signed cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, who should bring depth.
These are moves without a lot of risk — Sutton’s three-year deal includes only $22.5 million guaranteed, which isn’t bad for a potential No. 1 cornerback who is still getting better. Finding players on the upswing is behind the Montgomery move, too.
Williams had a career year. Holmes and Campbell are betting it was the career year, and probably wasn’t repeatable. And as much as they loved his locker room vibes and his talent for finding the end zone, personality and passion only get you so far.
This year’s free agency approach should remind anyone who loves this team that the Lions are still playing the long game. They are playing the short game as well.
They are better — on paper — than they were at the end of the season. A fan and team favorite may be gone. But the folks who created the culture Williams thrived in remain. In the end, that’s what matters most.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.