Detroit Lions biggest challenge this year may be dealing with pressure of high expectations

Detroit Free Press

Expectations can be a strange thing, especially around Allen Park.

The Detroit Lions historically have handled the challenge of expectations about as well as a nail handles the challenge of a hammer.

Yet, here we are. Or, literally, here we sat Thursday, in the extra-large, supersize-me contingent of media that numbered close to 60 strong for the first organized team activity open to reporters this season.

To put 60 reporters in perspective, that’s a number closer to what you might expect for Opening Day at Comerica Park or the first game of the season at Ford Field.

Two coaches were even caught by surprise by the number of media as they entered the interview room in Allen Park. The Free Press sent five journalists, plus Shawn Windsor.

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The turnout was understandable because it’s the first chance reporters got to see the full team on the field since Jan. 8. The number of media will surely dwindle for next week’s OTA availability. But Thursday’s showing should underscore to coach Dan Campbell and the rest of the organization how much expectations have been heightened for this season, because media companies get their marching orders from the interest fans pay to their reporting.

Some people call this hype, which is just another word for a bunch of out-of-control interest. But hype is real and it’s the fuel that powers expectations.

Of course, Campbell wants none of it.

“We’re not into the hype,” he said.

No coach is. Hype is a distraction. Hype is the enemy of focus, which is what Campbell wants, especially in the nascent stages of the season, like Thursday. That’s when players had what he called a “pajama party,” which is another way of describing unpadded, limited-contract drills.

The Lions are in a good place coming off last year’s 8-2 finish to a 9-7 season that was a hair’s breadth away from earning a playoff spot. But there’s always roster turnover and that’s what concerns Campbell. New players, new coaches, new plays, new ideas — that’s a lot of new stuff that can trip up a team that’s new to winning.

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“And all of that other stuff won’t matter if we don’t put the work back in,” he said. “So that, to me, is the focus. I mean, we can’t worry about what everybody else says, you know?

“Just like last year, you know? We can’t worry about when you lose five in a row that you’re back in the dumper. Because if you do that, then you won’t win another game. And it’s the same thing here. If we’re going to really buy in to that and not put the work in, oh, we’ll get our ass kicked. So that’s how what we’re going to do.”

Right now, if you’re wearing a Jared Goff jersey — well, you’re probably Jared Goff. But if you’re sipping Kool-Aid through your Honolulu Blue and Silver straw signed by Havard Rugland, you’re not going to like what I’m about to tell you. It’s about how this team might not be as good as most people think it is.

Yes, the Lions should be a good team. But the reason Campbell doesn’t like hype is that for all his talk about grit and grinding, he knows how fragile a team and a season can be. As much as everyone wants to invoke the 8-2 finish, let’s not forget the 1-6 start that made Campbell 4-19-1 as a Lions coach at the end of October.

Nothing was certain about Campbell and his tenure at that point.

I don’t know if Campbell knows his Lions history the way the rest of us do. But if he did a little studying, he would learn about Jim Caldwell’s 11-5 season in 2014 that was followed by a 7-9 face plant and executive firings the next year.

Or the 10-6 season under Jim Schwartz in 2011 that was followed by a 4-12 cratering. The lesson here is really not be a Lions coach named Jim — or Matt or Rod or Steve or, well, anything but George or Buddy.

As I said, hammer and nail.

Hey, it happens. Players get hurt — or suspended — and the team struggles to succeed while also dealing with the added pressure of disappointment.

The NFL schedule makers didn’t do Campbell any favors by giving the Lions four prime-time games, including the NFL’s kickoff game at Kansas City.

“Look, I know what’s out there, our guys know what’s out there,” he said. “And there is going to be a fine balance here as we start getting closer to August about, man, just let’s stay in our lane.

“Let’s worry about what’s in front of us, what’s in this locker room and not worry about everything on the outside. And we always have to keep that in focus. But yeah, it’s an exciting thing.”

That excitement was evident during practice, when Jameson Williams went hard and fell to the ground at least twice while fighting defensive backs on some deep throws. It was evident when players spoke afterward.

“Yeah, the hype is there,” defensive end Aidan Hutchinson said with a big smile. “When I saw we’re playing K.C., I love the prime-time games.

“I just look forward to those more than any other game and so to be the NFL opener for the season, I mean, doesn’t get much better than that.”

Let’s not forget that as much as the pressure of hype and expectations can make some teams and players wilt, others thrive in that environment and rise to meet the challenge. Because, after all, even the hammer misses the nail once in a while.

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

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