Niyo: Tale of two Lions? Best of times straight ahead

Detroit News

Allen Park — They don’t know what they don’t know. But, that’s really not the point here.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson has one idea. Taylor Decker has another. And when you put those ideas together, you do get a better sense of where they think this Lions team might be headed this fall.

A better appreciation, too, for how Dan Campbell’s team plans to handle all the excitement they’re generating these days, having gone from a perennial NFL afterthought to the league’s 2023 preseason darling — HBO’s “Hard Knocks” actually inquired about filming a sequel, by the way — and a darkhorse Super Bowl contender.

In Decker’s case, as the longest-tenured player on the roster and one of the Lions’ unquestioned leaders, it’s a longer trip from there to here, obviously. Just ask him

“I’ve said this in the past — and not to be grim — but I’ve been here a lot when we’ve been (expletive) on,” he said Thursday as the Lions’ veteran players wrapped up their offseason workouts in Allen Park and headed off on summer vacation. “We were the butt of the joke.”

Now, they’re not, though, and Decker is reminded of that just about every time he comes and goes: Whether it’s at the airport flying back from his offseason home in Phoenix — “People are just … they’re excited,” he says — or when the Uber driver from Detroit pulls into the parking lot at 222 Republic Drive in Allen Park and realizes who’s in the back seat, “and then you’re stuck in the car for 10 minutes.”

He was laughing as he said that last part, mind you. For one thing, those conversations with long-suffering, second- and third-generation Lions fans are a lot more fun now than they were a few years ago. (“I’ve had so many people (tell me), ‘My dad’s been a fan for 60 years, and for once, he was happy at the end of the year,'” Decker said, referencing last season’s second-half surge and the Week 18 win at Green Bay.) But beyond that, the 29-year-old left tackle says he carries a different perspective as an eighth-year pro who has come of age in Detroit.

“I feel like in a lot of ways, I’ve become a man in this city,” said Decker, who was headed back to Arizona this weekend to spend time with his wife, Kyndra, and their 8-month-old daughter Daisy. “Obviously, the fans, this is special to them. And this place is special to me. So maybe we have that common ground.”

Gardner-Johnson, admittedly, is on new turf here. So when the All-Pro safety turned to the media watching a red-zone drill in minicamp earlier this week and playfully barked, “Detroit ain’t seen nothin’ like this!” after another defensive stop, he didn’t mean any offense.

“The passion that you guys see, the energy … I’m just ready to win,” he explained afterward.

Those aren’t idle words, coming from a guy who has won three division titles in his first four NFL seasons, two of them coming with Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn in New Orleans. The Lions, as we all know, haven’t won a single division title in three decades.

But, that’s part of the reason why Brad Holmes kept calling Gardner-Johnson’s agent almost every day on his drive home from the office during free agency back in March. The Lions’ general manager knew how much the player was coveted by Glenn and Campbell and the rest of the Lions’ personnel department. But, Holmes also knew this young defense he’d started to build in Detroit could use an infusion of playoff-tested moxie. And he knew this much-improved roster still needed more players with “skins on the wall,” as Campbell likes to say.

“Listen, Detroit loves me and I love them: That’s why I’m here,” said Gardner-Johnson, who might not have read the patient’s full history before he arrived but certainly has a better understanding of it after just a couple of months in town.

Soon after signing a one-year deal with the Lions, he saw a video clip that’d been making the rounds on social media, the one that shows fans celebrating the Lions’ last home playoff win in the stands at the Silverdome back in January 1992, long before he was even born — before all but two players on the Lions’ current 90-man roster were born, for that matter.

“The whole crowd was going crazy — I think a guy was crying in the stands or something,” Gardner-Johnson said, shaking his head. “Think about that. I want to bring that feeling back here.”

More than that, he wants to get back to where he was only four months ago, which, not coincidentally, is someplace the Lions have never been. Gardner-Johnson was part of a Philadelphia Eagles team that won the NFC Championship last season and played in Super Bowl LVII, losing a 38-35 heartbreaker to the Kansas City Chiefs.

And the fact that the Lions will kick off the 2023 regular season by playing the defending champs at Arrowhead Stadium certainly isn’t lost on Gardner-Johnson.

“Listen, congratulations to them: They won the Super Bowl,” he said of the Chiefs “But, I’m on a whole different team. This is a whole new season. They’ll see us on Thursday night.”

In the meantime, they all understand: The fans are waiting.

“I know this city is just ready for a winner,” Decker said. “And I am, too.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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