PHOENIX — The buzz about the Detroit Lions was palpable at the NFL’s annual meeting this week.
“A lot of people come up and were complimenting us on the season and rooting for us and liked the way we finished,” Lions president Rod Wood said.
The Lions finished 9-8 last season and won eight of their final 10 games. They missed the playoffs for the sixth straight year, but their hot finish and the excitement about what they could be this fall should translate into more primetime games for the team in 2023.
Wood said he is not sure if the Lions will draw the maximum five prime-time games, but after talking to NFL scheduling czar Howard Katz, he said, “I suspect we’re going to get a number” of primetime starts.
“I assume we’ll be in more games than just Thanksgiving,” Wood said. “There’s going to be more opportunities for prime-time games too, because there’s going to be three simulcast games on Monday Night Football, with ABC and ESPN, so that’s two more. There’s the Amazon game the day after Thanksgiving, which obviously we wouldn’t play in, but it creates another prime-time game for another team. So there is more inventory, which should enhance our opportunity, as well as the outlook of the team.”
Last year, the Lions had a schedule full of 1 p.m. starts, though their Week 18 game against the Green Bay Packers was flexed into Sunday Night Football because of its playoff importance.
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“The exposure is great,” Wood said. “I’d rather have as many of them at home as possible. I mean, the road prime-time games are a challenge for travel, but if you earn the right to play in prime time, it’s because of good things.”
Wood spent about 20 minutes with reporters at the end of the three-day meeting and addressed several topics including the unveiling of the Lions’ new alternate helmets and the potential for a new practice facility. Here are 10 more highlights:
Must-see TV Thursdays?
The Lions were one of many teams that opposed an NFL proposal to make some late-season Thursday night games a part of the league’s flexible scheduling.
NFL owners approved a change to the Thursday night scheduling policy, allowing teams to play a maximum of two Thursday night games in a season (up from one), but the league tabled a vote on the ability to flex Thursday night games till May.
“I would say the flexing part I’m against, at least for the time being,” Wood said. “We’re flexing Monday night games this year and to flex a Thursday night game the same year as a Monday night flex, let’s crawl before we run a little bit. And it’s a big deal for the fans, obviously. They’re expecting to play on Sunday, they’ve made arrangements, etc., and then you move to a Thursday night you’ve got school-aged kids, you may lose some families. I just think that hopefully we can find a better way to schedule enough games and if you do two short weeks, you have another group of teams that you can have on Thursday night twice that helps improve the product.”
Break glass in case of emergency
League owners narrowly voted down a proposal by the Lions to grant a team a third challenge, and tabled a proposal to allow teams to use an emergency third quarterback on gamedays if their first two are ruled out for the game.
Rich McKay, chairman of the NFL’s competition committee, supported both proposals and said there was enough support for the emergency quarterback rule to pass, but that details like whether the rule only applies to quarterbacks on the 53-man roster need to be worked out first.
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“We’ve talked in the past about different rule proposals and I would say in all candor it’s (we) probably ran out of time to get them put together (before we could propose them),” Wood said. “This year we were kind of making note as the season was going along of things that we thought we might want to consider proposing and so we were a little more prepared to get them in on time and then work with the league office to get them written in a way that they could be considered.”
May I propose …
The Lions withdrew two more proposals before the start of the meetings, co-authored a fifth proposal that passed (to have one cut-down date after the preseason) and attempted to submit a fifth proposal to allow unlimited practice squad call-ups for Thursday night games that Wood said could not be considered because it was subject to the collective bargaining agreement.
What to wear?
Wood told the Free Press in late February the Lions would unveil a new alternate helmet this spring, with a change in uniforms planned for 2024.
On Tuesday, Wood said the team will unveil its new helmets this spring, and he and head coach Dan Campbell would sit down after the schedule release to pick what uniforms the team will wear in what games. The Lions can only wear their new helmet with their alternate all-gray uniforms.
Home sweet home
Wood reiterated another news item he told the Free Press in February — that the Lions are looking into building a new practice facility. The team needs a 50- to 60-acre plot of land for a new facility, and Wood said that is preferable to moving training camp off-site.
“I’d be thinking less about relocating training camp than relocating the whole practice facility and keeping training camp at the practice facility,” he said. “(The Colts have) this unique facility (they use for training camp, where the Lions practiced last summer) that’s very cool, but it’s in their hometown. They’re not picking up and relocating to a new city. Players, I presume, are still going home at night, the coaching staff is still going home at night. I’d rather have a bigger practice facility with more fan experience than stay where we are and going on road for training camp.”
A good place to work
The Lions earned mostly high marks from an NFL Players Association survey that ranked the working condition of players. The Lions earned high marks for their strength and training staffs, weight room and for their treatment of families, but scored poorly in nutrition and training room.
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According to the report card, players felt “the training room was understaffed” and “the food service was significantly lacking.”
Wood said the Lions conducted their own player survey prior to the release of the NFLPA report that “had some similarities” the team is working to address.
“Part of bringing in (rehab guru) Brett Fischer was a response to that,” Wood said. “And we’re redoing the dining facility. We’re taking the opportunity to move the dining facility upstairs, so we won’t be competing with the players and we won’t be taking space from them. Hopefully that will at least improve things, and we’ll continue to look at the surveys moving forward. We do it on everything with players, way beyond what the P.A. survey does. I think it was for the most part solid, but the same two areas were identified and we invested in them.”
Barry! Barry! Barry!
Wood said the Lions will hold a VIP event later this year to unveil the 8-foot bronze Barry Sanders statue that is being erected at Ford Field. The statue will be in place before the Lions’ first home game, Wood said.
“Looking forward to doing that,” Wood said. “We’ve seen pictures of it. It’s coming along, very close to being done. I think Barry’s going to be proud of it and so are we, so that’ll be a big thing.”
The Lions do not have a statue to honor Calvin Johnson in the works, but chief operating officer Mike Disner said the relationship between Johnson and the team is coming along after years of strain. Disner said he and Johnson connected through mutual friends and said the organization is “excited about furthering that relationship.”
“Obviously, it’s the right thing for us and I think it’s the right thing for Calvin, too,” Wood said. “We’ll get past the history and I think it’ll be a win for everybody.”
Wood said he has not heard if the Lions will play the Chiefs in Germany this year. He told the Free Press in February he encouraged the NFL to send the Lions overseas to delay the Lions having to play an international home game, perhaps as soon as 2024.
As for general ticket demand, Disner said nearly 97% of season ticket holders have renewed for 2023, which Wood said “may be the highest (rate) ever.”
“And then thousands and thousands of new season-ticket purchases, too,” he said. “So ticket demand remains strong, which I think is because of the buzz about the team and the way we finished. I’m suspecting that we’re going to have sellouts for every game this year and that will create that same stress that we dealt with last year with parking and then getting in and out of the stadium.”
Wood said he made only minor schedule requests for the fall. With nine road games, Wood said he asked Katz to start on the road for balance in the season’s final 17 weeks, and he said he made a personal plea for a road game against Baltimore in October – for the same weekend his son is getting married in Wilmington, Del.
“Either that or a Monday night game at home or something,” Wood said.
The Lions also will be on the road (or on bye) the weekend of Nov. 12, when Metallica plays a two-day show at Ford FIeld.
“I feel like we’ve been treated fairly,” Wood said. “I think it might be better for us, given that we only have eight home games to maybe open on the road, so that you don’t end up having to have so many road games at the end of the year. If you opened at home that’s kind of one week you’ve taken away, so I did request consideration to open on the road if that works out. But that’s not a must have.”
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.