Dan Campbell’s tenets of grit, accountability, and toughness is starting to pay dividends in the Motor City and could finally mean success for the Lions after years of ineptitude.
The NFL kicked off its regular season this week with a matchup between the reigning champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Detroit Lions. The Lions, who ended the previous season with an 8-2 record after starting the year 1-6, came into Arrowhead and handed the Chiefs an opening night loss in what is arguably the biggest win for the Lions franchise in over a decade.
While many (including play by play announcer Mike Tirico) have suggested that the win wasn’t as impressive since the Chiefs were missing stars Travis Kelce and Chris Jones, the Lions made the plays that needed to be made and were the beneficiaries of some timely drops from Chiefs receivers en route to a 21-20 opening night victory. It is hard not to feel that this is a statement win for Detroit and head coach Dan Campbell, who have been on the receiving end of countless jokes since his arrival in Detroit. For the first time in a very long time, it feels that the fans in Detroit have a competent team that might finally get them back to the playoffs.
Decades of Misery
I lived in the Detroit area until very recently and was there for 18 years. In that time, I watched many Lions games and knew a lot of fans of the team. To put it plainly, the team has been a joke. Only the Cleveland Browns since 2005 (when I moved to Detroit) have won fewer games than the Detroit Lions. In that time the Lions have fired 5 coaches, endured a 0-16 season, and have nothing to show for the primes of great players like Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford. It has been so bad that there is an acronym to describe the Lions when they would inevitably lose a game. That acronym was S.O.L., which stands for “same old Lions”.
It cannot be overstated how deep the levels of ineptitude of a team are where its own fans assume that the worst will happen. Lions fans have not been given any reason, since the Barry Sanders era, to have any shred of positivity about their team. Every coach that was hired was coming in to fix the foundation, only to find themselves becoming sucked in by a vortex of losing. Every new quarterback or wide receiver was the savior. The team simply could not get out of its own way, and this has been happening consistently over decades.
This level of ineptitude is especially unusual in the NFL, a league that is predicated on parity and on worst to first turnaround stories. Even a team that has lost just as much as the Lions since 2005, like the Jacksonville Jaguars, have experienced some playoff success in the last 18 years and are coming off of a division winning season. It seemed that no matter what the Lions did they were chasing legends in Green Bay for 30 years in Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. Or they were fighting for second best with alternating strong Minnesota and Chicago teams. In the NFC North, the Lions were always at the bottom of the barrel, and it didn’t seem to be changing any time soon. This is the atmosphere that Dan Campbell entered for his first head coaching job in the NFL. Many assumed he would be just another casualty in the Lions graveyard but Campbell has proved to many that he has some tricks up his sleeve.
The Fascinating Aura of Dan Campbell
Dan Campbell played Tight End in the NFL for a decade on three teams (New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, and Detroit Lions). He is a former player and he sure looks like one. On the sidelines on Sundays, Campbell looks like he may be ready to strap on the pads and run a drag route. His intensity reflects someone that played at the highest level and experienced success. Most Lions fans will remember his introductory press conference where he proclaimed that his team was going to “bite a kneecap off”, and they will also remember the national mockery of Campbell that followed those comments.
But perhaps many of us missed the point in focusing on one comment as we are so prone to do. Campbell, like many Lions coaches before him, said and insinuated the types of things that we have seen before. He talked about toughness and accountability, that his team was going to compete every Sunday. For Lions fans, this isn’t a new revelation. They heard similar comments when Rod Marinelli and Jim Schwartz were hired and subsequently failed miserably in Detroit. But two years later, it seems that Campbell has cracked the code.
The thing that you will always notice about Dan Campbell is that he is unapologetically pro-player. He understands the grind of being a player in this league, and players can relate to that. He has entrusted a lot of responsibility to his assistants like Ben Johnson and Aaron Glenn, while maintaining his identity on the team. He wants to be aggressive, as we have seen from his propensity to go for it on 4th down. Much like blocking as a tight end, he believes in setting the tone in a game as a key to victory. And his team has bought in on every side of the ball.
This type of aggressive and dialed in approach is appealing to veteran players who want to win because it is relatable to them. It is why veterans like CJ Gardner Johnson and David Montgomery chose to sign with them, because they want to win just as badly as Campbell does. Campbell sets the tone and his team follows him. While it wasn’t showing immediately, the second half of last year and what happened in Week 1 indicates that change may finally be on the horizon for the Detroit Lions.
Something to Build Off Of
The Lions have had moments in the past where it seemed that they were on an upward trajectory, particularly in the earlier days of Matthew Stafford’s career. But something always felt off, where the team might have felt destined to underachieve down the stretch. The way they would win these games felt a bit unsustainable with circus catches from Calvin Johnson and circus throws from Stafford. The current iteration of the Lions, by contrast, feels much more sustainable.
It starts on offense with offensive coordinator Ben Johnson. Johnson was rumored to be in the mix for head coaching jobs this past offseason, but chose to stay in Detroit because he liked what they are building which is a testament to the culture that Campbell has built with the Lions. Johnson has formulated an offense where Quarterback Jared Goff has thrived, leading him to approaching the NFL record for most consecutive passes without an interception. In the receiving game, Amon-Ra St. Brown has emerged as an elite talent in addition to the return of veteran Marvin Jones Jr. To complement this is a strong running game with the reliable Montgomery and electric rookie Jahmyr Gibbs. All of this is held together by one of the best offensive lines in the entire NFL. Quite simply, the offense is athletic, powerful, and multidimensional just as all efficient offenses in today’s NFL are.
The defensive side of the ball was a weakness last season but this has been addressed with various free agent signings, and the emergence of second year edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson has shown the potential to be a disruptive force. The team showed itself to be disciplined against a strong Chiefs team and showed why they are considered by many to be the favorites in the NFC North. Unlike the past, this Lions success feels real and sustainable. They take care of the ball, have big play potential, and are disciplined on defense.
When I think about the potential of this Lions team, I think about the passion of Lions fans. This is a fan base that has stayed loyal to their hometown team despite embarrassing losses and tenures that have been hopeless. The city finally has a team that it can be proud to root for, and a coach that they can relate to. The trajectory of this Lions team is winning their division and appropriating themselves well in the playoffs. For the first time in many years it finally feels like something is brewing inside of Ford Field. An aura of success that has long been overdue for the Lions organization and its fans.
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