Wojo: Lions open camp as NFL darlings, which has its pitfalls

Detroit News

Allen Park — We’ve heard it before, but not like this. Not nearly like this.

The Lions arguably are the most-discussed team of the NFL offseason, even though they haven’t made the playoffs in seven years. In a blur, they went from sleepy franchise to sleeper pick to betting favorites to win their division. And if anyone, locally or nationally, dares mention the Super Bowl, they aren’t met with ridicule. At least not to their faces.

Lion eyes don’t feel like lyin’ eyes these days. Commentators gnaw on the fresh storyline of the hungry team with the colorful coach, the redemptive quarterback and the rabid fans. Like many, I think the hype is justified, just not yet verified. It’s an important distinction.

It’s almost breathtaking how quickly this has unfolded, and it requires appropriate caution. The new culture essentially was born in one 10-game snapshot last season, an 8-2 flourish that ended with a 9-8 record that spawned the most-anticipated Lions season, maybe ever.

Some of the buzz is overly buzzy, such as predictions of 13-14 wins and a Super Bowl title. The Lions haven’t even won a playoff game in 32 years, but past performance isn’t predictive of future performance, right? (Except for the Lions, historically). If that’s true, then an 8-2 run on the back half of a seemingly lost season isn’t predictive of 2023. But it sure feels like it, doesn’t it?

Training camp opens this weekend and I’m picking the Lions to win the division with a modest 10-7 record. I expect to alter that prediction weekly until they play the NFL’s showcase opener Sept. 7 in Kansas City, where they’ll get to admire the Chiefs’ Super Bowl rings and try to measure up.

All the rage

That’s the odd dichotomy of this team. The Lions haven’t won anything of note since 1957, yet the NFL deems them worthy of its first marquee matchup on a Thursday night. They’re scheduled for at least four prime-time games. Last season, they had none until the finale at Green Bay was flexed to Sunday night. That stirring 20-16 victory shoved the Lions into the national spotlight, partly because it helped shove Aaron Rodgers out of town.

Now they’re heavy favorites in the NFC North, despite not having won their division since 1993. They’re ticketed for the playoffs, yet the Vegas over-under victory total is 9.5, suggesting a 10-7 mark is overly optimistic. They’re expected to be good, but experts are heeding history and hedging their bets. If you think Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell indeed are building a power, you’d better heed their words too.

“I love the fact that it’s a lot of what they call buzz and hope,” Holmes said on Fox analyst Peter Schrager’s podcast last week. “I think this fan base and our city deserve that, just through all they’ve been through. But at the end of the day, me and Dan know we haven’t made the playoffs yet. We got to get in the dance. We have full faith and optimism that I think we have the right structure in place that we can get that done.”

Many people do, and I’m not here to dampen anything. But there’s a curious disconnect between how analysts view the Lions’ chances, and how they view the Lions’ players. In CBS Sports’ ranking of the league’s top 100 players, only two Lions appeared: Penei Sewell (66) and Amon-Ra St. Brown (83). Jared Goff was superb the second half of last season, yet seldom is listed among the league’s top 12 quarterbacks.

Two factors at play here. One, the Lions are relatively young, and might start as many as four rookies. Either the lineup really needed the boost, or Holmes is a shrewd drafter. (Or both).

And second, the sample size — one 10-game stretch — isn’t large enough to test for authenticity. Going from a woeful group scrapping for respect, to a team showing up at fancy NFL parties in their work boots, requires refinement. Holmes did a lot of refining on a defense ranked last in the league. He signed experienced secondary talent — C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Cam Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley — and used high picks on a linebacker (Jack Campbell, first round) and a safety (Brian Branch, second round), which should make pass-rushers Aidan Hutchinson and James Houston even more effective.

On Halloween last season, the Lions were 1-6 and had just fired an assistant coach (Aubrey Pleasant), while Campbell was trying to fourth-down-gamble his way out of trouble. Owner Sheila Hamp was steadfast, and to her credit, stood up and supported the regime. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn made adjustments that clicked, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson unwrapped his play-calling wizardry and Goff sharpened his game.

Up to the hype?

Basically, the Lions turned it around by forcing turnovers and not committing turnovers, which is a fine formula that’s hard to sustain. They led the league with the fewest turnovers and finished fourth with a plus-seven differential. In the final 10 games, Goff had 17 touchdown passes and one interception, and hasn’t thrown a pick since last November, 324 heaves ago.

The theory is, after going 5-1 against their division, the Lions should dominate again. Rodgers is gone from Green Bay, the Bears are rebuilding and the Vikings are retooling. Minnesota was 13-4 last season and set an NFL record going 11-0 in one-score games. Surely that can’t be duplicated.

Nope, it can’t. Just like you can’t expect 8-2 to be duplicated. Just like you can’t expect another lopsided turnover margin, or Goff to throw another 300-plus passes without a pick. Goff showed tremendous, tough-minded leadership, but some will focus on that 1-6 start when he committed nine turnovers, and wonder if he later feasted on lesser foes and lowered expectations.

The Lions have a strong offensive line, a good place to start. But outside of St. Brown, there are questions at receiver with Jameson Williams suspended the first six games, which is why they traded for the Jets’ Denzel Mims, a former second-round pick. They’re unveiling a new backfield of David Montgomery and first-rounder Jahmyr Gibbs, which should be an explosive upgrade over Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift, but we’ll see.

It escalates quickly now, with the early opener followed by the home debut against Seattle. Sorry, the Lions don’t get to ease into this. Like most teams, they’ll go as their quarterback goes, amid rocketing expectations. Are they ready for it? They’re not surprising anyone now, so you can bet opponents will be ready for them.

“Look, we’re not into the hype,” Campbell said in the spring. “We got a brand-new team. Yeah we got a foundation, but man, we got to get the chemistry right. And all of that other stuff won’t matter if we don’t put the work back in. If we’re going to really buy into (the hype) and not put the work in, oh we’ll get our (derrieres) kicked.”

The fervor hasn’t abated. When the Lions offered free tickets to 8:30 a.m. camp practices in Allen Park, fans gobbled them up in a few hours. Everyone wants to see what the commotion is about, fueling the commotion locomotion. It’s been a rare, riveting offseason, and the Lions have earned the attention. They’ll have to fight to keep it.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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