The Detroit Lions and the NFC's Sudden Window of Opportunity
A weakened conference and meaningful upgrades could mean sudden success for a team that has struggled to win for decades
One of the great things about the NFL that fans love is how quickly a team can go from the basement to the penthouse. We have frequently seen teams that finished at the bottom of the standings come back the next season and be competitive. Very seldom in the modern NFL do we see teams mired in decades of mediocrity without much hope. Following the 2022 season, only four franchises have had five or more consecutive losing seasons. Only the New York Jets have had a playoff drought of longer than a decade, which very well could end this season after the team acquired quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
The reason for this is that the NFL is a league that prides itself on parity, and in an era of free agency and player mobility, a bad team can become a playoff team rather quickly. But there are some exceptions to this, one of them is the Detroit Lions. For many years, they have been an afterthought in the NFL’s basement. But after a promising season, talent upgrades, and the window of opportunity in the NFC North being wide open, the Lions and their fans have reason to be optimistic.
A History of Ineptitude
I have lived in the metro Detroit area for nearly 20 years, and in that time I have come across many fans of the Detroit Lions. As a fan of the New York Knicks, I find them relatable. They are passionate about their team, a city that loves football, and desperately wants the Lions to be a Super Bowl contender. While I have been here, however, they have not been given much to cheer about, the Lions have only had two 10-win seasons in the last 18 years. In the middle of that stretch of ineptitude, I witnessed a winless 0-16 season in 2008, countless head coaches that were supposed to fix things, and the inability to create wins out of two generational talents in Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.
In the Detroit sports scene, the Lions have often been the butt of many jokes. They have never won a championship during the Super Bowl era while their counterparts in the Pistons, Red Wings, and Tigers have all had some levels of success in the modern era. And yet, people love this team because this city loves football. They have also had the misfortune of playing in a division that has been dominated by the Green Bay Packers during the tenures of Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. In that same time frame, the Chicago Bears have had stints of success and made it to a Super Bowl. The Minnesota Vikings have also been a model of consistency, with 13 years of a .500 record or better since 2004. The Lions were always the ones that were left behind.
Then a couple of years ago, the team hired Dan Campbell. Campbell was a former Tight End, who played for the Lions during his career and had a decade of assistant coaching experience with the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins under his belt. Many people were taken aback by his wildly intense approach, indicative that he was a former player. His opening press conference emphasized intensity and even a forever immortalized line where he mentioned “biting a kneecap off” of opponents.
This man was different from the coaches of the past like Matt Patricia, Jim Schwartz, and Rod Marinelli. Those coaches were trying to fit in the box of what a coach was supposed to look like, but in Campbell, the Lions have someone who is himself, for better or for worse. And after a turbulent first year that saw the team go 3-13-1, the Lions had their first winning record since 2017 under the leadership of Campbell and a renaissance of LA Rams cast-off Jared Goff. As the Lions rise, it seems that their timing for once couldn’t be any better.
Timing Is Everything
The Lions had their breakthrough last year, winning 9 games and looking like a serious threat for the first time in many years. They had a potent offense with the 7th best passing game and 3rd best scoring offense in the league. Where they were consistently poor was in the secondary. They gave up the 3rd most passing yards in the NFL and trailed only the Chicago Bears in yards per attempt giving up 7.5. They needed to get some secondary help.
So the team went into free agency and did exactly that. They signed C.J. Gardner-Johnson from the Eagles, a versatile playmaker with a championship pedigree. They also signed cornerback Cameron Sutton from the Pittsburgh Steelers to a three-year deal, who should provide excellent one-on-one coverage on the outside, something that desperately hurt the Lions last year. Lastly, they took a chance on former 49er cornerback Emmanuel Mosley, who has flashed talent but has dealt with some injuries during his career. On top of that, the Lions also addressed their running game. By signing David Montgomery and drafting Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs, the Lions have made a clear indication that they are looking for dynamic playmakers in the backfield that can be a threat in the passing game.
All these moves indicate that the Lions are taking a step toward being a playoff team, and it couldn’t have happened at a better time than right now. First, let’s take a look at the landscape of the NFC North. The Green Bay Packers, who have dominated this division since the 1990s are now depleted. With the departure of Aaron Rodgers to the New York Jets, the Packers turn to Jordan Love, an unproven late first-round pick from 2020. The team has also lost a lot of the weapons that were staples during the Rodgers era, so it would appear that they are set to take a step back.
The Minnesota Vikings are coming off of a spectacular 13-4 year, but have lost some key pieces and could be looking at a regression since they won an NFL record 11 one-score games, a feat that will be difficult to duplicate. And then there are the Chicago Bears, who are still rebuilding with quarterback Justin Fields, who has yet to prove that he can win games through the air as well as on the ground. These unknowns, in addition to the fact that the Lions have made meaningful improvements around the roster, could mean that they will win their first division championship since 1993.
Then when we look at the bigger picture in the NFC, there is truly only one team that feels like a title contender: last year’s NFC champion, the Philadelphia Eagles. But unlike the AFC, which seems to be littered with elite teams and quarterbacks, the NFC feels much more wide-open. The 49ers have a conundrum at quarterback now that Jimmy Garoppolo has moved on to Las Vegas, and the team is in the unsure hands of Trey Lance. The Rams, after winning the Super Bowl two years ago feel like they may be heading towards a rebuild sooner rather than later. Then there are the fringe teams like the New York Giants, Seattle Seahawks, and Dallas Cowboys that feel like they are good but not great teams. Simply put, the NFC doesn’t have teams that are on the same level as the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, and Buffalo Bills.
It almost feels sacrilegious to say that the Detroit Lions of all teams could be the second-best team in the NFC this season. But yet, when you survey the landscape it feels like the conference is there for the taking. The Lions have rebuilt their running game to be more dynamic, have a top-ten offensive line in football, a fortified secondary, and a quarterback that seems to be comfortable in the offense. The pieces are all there to make a run, despite the scar tissue that many Lions fans will feel this team still has from all the years of disappointment. But in an NFL that is constantly shifting the axis of who the great teams are, it seems that the Lions for the first time in many years are trending in an upward direction. It is difficult to say if there is a fan base in the NFL that deserves that positive feeling more than Lions fans, and they may finally, after years of torture, get that team.