When the Ford family sacked Detroit Lions’ head coach Jim Caldwell in 2018 after two 9-7 seasons, they made a clear statement of intent that the expectations of the franchise were greater than one playoff win in over 60 years.
With GM Bob Quinn firmly complicit in the decision to replace Caldwell, the subsequent hiring of Matt Patricia, one of his former New England Patriots colleagues, inextricably bound the ‘Boston Boys’ duo together in success or failure.
Fast forward three years, and the incoming regime has become the departed, with Quinn being despatched to forever reside in an ever-growing pantheon of unloved front office executives, whilst Patricia’s 13-29-1 record puts him just below Steve Mariucci and Jim Schwarz, with a win record of .321 squarely in the “not quite as bad as Rod Marinelli” category of Allen Park coaching failures.
The Lions were blown out on Monday Night Football by the New York Jets 17-48 in Patricia's first game of his debut season, and their 25-41 capitulation to the Houston Texans on the nationally televised Thanksgiving fixture brought the ‘Poundshop Patriots’ era neatly full circle in conclusion.
Time to rip it up and start again.
For the long-suffering fanbase, just to be playing meaningful football in December would be a novelty. To give some context, the last time the Lions won their division was back in 1993, pre-dating the current NFC North, when the Lions resided in the old NFC Central division, an astonishing accomplishment in a league whose draft system, salary cap and schedule are designed to promote competitive parity.
Newly appointed GM Brad Holmes refuted talk of a rebuild in his introductory press conference, but after 6 months in the job, the realisation of the scale of the task ahead of him will be stark.
Under Holmes, the Lions have made sweeping changes to a roster littered with the debris of the Quinntricia regime, beginning with a mega-trade of long-time franchise QB Matthew Stafford to the LA Rams in exchange for starting QB Jared Goff, plus a 2021 third-round pick and first-round picks in 2022 and 2023, securing valuable draft capital for Holmes’s “retool”.
Holmes was also instrumental in appointing new HC Dan Campbell, previously assistant to Sean Payton in New Orleans, who has so far proven to be a polarising figure. Campbell’s press conferences are must-watch viewing, beginning with his infamous “kneecaps” diatribe through to sporting a racing helmet to address the media prior to his guest role marshalling the Detroit Grand Prix.
Although Lions fans have mostly bought into Campbell’s high energy style, he’s become something of a meme to the national media, who have characterised him as a coaching dinosaur, deriding everything from his colossal caffeine consumption to his ‘hands on’ involvement in training camp, where he set the example to the players by leading conditioning drills.
Whilst Campbell has monopolised the media’s focus, Holmes and Campbell have quietly gone about assembling a coaching staff packed with talented ex-players, with the purpose of building a culture of respect and communication in the locker room, a seismic shift from the old regime where the relationship between Patricia and his team seemed antagonistic at best.
“Everybody’s buying in and you can see right now, a lot of young players are buying him because he (Campbell) came in with the right attitude. He understands. He expects a lot from us, but at the same time he understands as a player what this grind is all about.”
One of Campbell’s first hires was the popular Anthony Lynn as the new Offensive Coordinator, who arrived in Detroit after four seasons as the head coach of the LA Chargers, with a combined 33-31 record and a playoff run under his leadership.
Lynn will inherit an offensive line that was already solid in 2020, ranking in the top 10 for blown blocks on both running and passing plays, and only allowing QB pressure on 20.8% of plays, 5th best in the league.
The Lions invested their first round pick on the leviathan Oregon State tackle Penei Sewell, a top college prospect whose power and burst is unprecedented at the age of 20. Sewell will join veteran LT Taylor Decker and Pro-Bowl Center Frank Ragnow on a unit that will be expected to keep the pressure away from new signal-caller Jared Goff.
In the backfield, D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams could prove to be a dynamic one-two punch, both also capable of contributing as receivers, as the Lions seek to establish a running game to enable the play-action pass schemes that play to Goff’s strengths.
Goff's five seasons at the Rams were marked by intense highs and lows, initially struggling in his debut season after being taken as the first overall pick, then flourishing under rookie HC Sean McVay.
Beating the Mahomes-led Chiefs 54-51 in a wild MNF shootout in 2018 raised Goff’s profile further, as he threw for 413 yards and 4 TDs. The Rams progressed to win two playoff games before losing to the Patriots and then suffering a post-Super Bowl slump that saw Goff’s statistics plummet and his confidence shot after behind the scenes clashes with McVay.
Rediscovering the form which led to his Pro-Bowl appearance could see the Lions profit further from the Stafford trade, and with Goff merely a makeweight in the deal, he could flourish away from the high-intensity spotlight of Los Angeles sports.
However, the dearth of talent in the Lions wide-receiver room is possibly the biggest cause for concern in a roster full of holes, and after being blessed with Golden Tate, Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay only 3 seasons ago, now expectations rest on the shoulders of free-agency acquisitions Tyrell Williams (ex-Raiders) and Breshad Perriman (ex-Jets) both of whom fall into the mould of much-travelled veterans with plenty still to prove.
Amon-Ra St. Brown, the combative fourth-round rookie receiver out of USC, could bring some juice, but the 112th pick will surely need a season to develop before the Lions rely on his productivity to anchor the group.
Instead, Goff’s go-to threat could prove to be tight-end TJ Hockenson, who despite a solid sophomore campaign, with 67 receptions (4th amongst TEs) for 723 yards (3rd) and six touchdowns, has reportedly spent the offseason honing his skills, including training with his friend and workout partner George Kittle.
"Hock’s got to be able to block, but I think Hockenson can be a real mismatch in the pass game. That’s really where I think he can excel, and you can feel Jared wants to go to him now.”
After a rookie season that was dogged by injuries and inconsistencies, he was one of the few plusses to emerge for the Lions in 2020, earning Pro Bowl honours in a breakout season.
Now he finds himself as the most reliable pass-catcher on the roster, and with a diminished receiving corps, Hockenson and free-agency arrival Darren Fells will need to contribute from the tight end position, although early word from training camp is that the Goff/Hock connection is clicking already.
Meanwhile, on the defensive side of the ball, the roster has undergone a drastic make-over, as incoming Defensive Coordinator Aaron Glenn has both cleared house and secured more than his fair share of draft picks to bolster a talent wasteland that repeatedly failed to make stops or turnover the ball in 2020.
Glenn, a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback, with 15 seasons in the NFL as a player, has spent the last five seasons as the defensive backs coach of the New Orleans Saints, where prior to Glenn’s arrival in 2016, the passing defense in New Orleans ranked 31st in the league, allowing an average of 284 yards per game through the air. In their most recent season under Glenn, the secondary in New Orleans was a different proposition, allowing just 217 passing yards through the air, giving the Saints the fifth-best passing defense in the NFL.
Glenn’s in-tray will be overflowing, as the Lions had the worst-performing defense in the league last season. Whilst the Lions have driven a bulldozer through the roster, and reinforced heavily in the trenches, the secondary in particular still looks like a threadbare unit.
The first item on Glenn’s agenda will be rebuilding the career of Jeff Okudah, the third overall pick in the 2020 draft, whose rookie year was blighted by a nagging groin injury that required surgery in the offseason.
Okudah will be hoping to rebound from a nightmare season where he regularly blew assignments and was beaten in man coverage. He allowed 579 yards into his coverage, the most of any CB with at least 200 coverage snaps, and only forced two incompletions all year, receiving a PFF coverage grade of just 30.9, dead last in his position throughout the entire league.
With Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman no longer on the team, third-year CB Amani Oruwariye has been getting nearly all of the first-team reps in camp opposite Okudah at the other outside cornerback spot.
Free agent veteran cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman, the defender on the infamous no-call in 2018′s NFC championship game between the Saints and Rams, signed for the Lions during camp and has a chance to earn reps in the slot, whilst at safety it’s likely that Glenn will be forced to stick with Tracy Walker and Will Harris, ranked 82nd and 84th by PFF respectively out of 94 graded players last season.
Training camp whispers suggest both players have made major strides during the offseason and have looked good in practice working with Dean Marlowe, who made two picks and allowed just one touchdown in 120 coverage snaps as the Buffalo Bills' third safety last year.
Another ex-Saint Alex Anzalone joins the linebacking corps, a unit who repeatedly underwhelmed last year, with the Lions best option, veteran Jamie Collins, coming off a season most notable for being tossed out a game for head-butting an official whilst (clumsily) attempting to demonstrate an illegal use of the helmet. Irony is a rich seam that runs through this defense.
The only beacon of hope for a Lions fanbase who have been starved of heavy defensive ammo since Ndamukong Suh stalked Ford Field is the rebuilt defensive line.
The biggest offseason plus was securing the services of Romeo Okwara, agreeing a three-year deal worth $39 million dollars for the edge rusher who had a breakout campaign in 2020, Okwara posting career-high numbers with 10 sacks, 29 quarterback hits and three forced fumbles, and his new contract cements his position as the cornerstone of the Lions front seven for years to come.
Joining Okwara on the defensive line is veteran DT Michael Brockers, acquired via a trade for a 7th round pick after nine seasons with the LA Rams, who can play both as an interior defensive lineman and on the edge. Brocker’s role will also be one of leader and mentor to a raw but talented group, with the Lions investing this year’s 2nd and 3rd round draft picks on two defensive tackles.
Washington’s Levi Onwuzurike has the athleticism to rush the passer, whilst N.C. State’s 317-pound Alim McNeill, predominantly a nose tackle, brings more of a run-stopping presence. Word from camp is that McNeill is expected to be a PROBLEM for opposing linemen, after reportedly holding his own against Frank Ragnow in team practices, and the two rookies will be competing for snaps with Da’Shawn Hand and Trey Flowers, who both suffered injury disrupted seasons last year but hopefully will be healthy for week one.
Despite the scepticism of the national media, the general consensus of most Lions observers is that Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell haven’t put a foot wrong throughout the offseason, from the players buying into OTA participation to the positive atmosphere around training camp. No hold-outs, serious injuries or Covid-19 scares have disrupted preparations, and the wider Lions coaching and playing staff have consistently struck the right notes with their media sessions and air of positivity, focus, and willingness to grind.
Of course, this counts for absolutely nothing when the 49ers visit Ford Field on the second Sunday of September, and the real business of football begins.
With Campbell the motivator-in-chief bringing the noise, Anthony Lynn, Aaron Glenn and Assistant Head Coach and RBs coach Duce Staley, who spent over a decade on the Eagles coaching staff, have formed a tight-knit group with the emphasis on collaboration and communication, and Allen Park already feels a happier place to be.
The Lions may aspire to be competitive in the NFC North this season, but the likelihood is that Campbell’s team will be utilising it as an extended evaluation of the roster they inherited, with a view to focusing on the players who are in the critical phase of their development, and working out where to spend their accumulated draft capital from the Stafford trade.
With both the Packers and the Vikings in the final throes of their current franchise QB, and the Bears hoping that Justin Fields will be the answer to their long-standing search for a signal-caller, it’s highly likely that the Lions will have an upcoming window to compete in the black-and-blue northern division that they have failed to win since the league’s reorganisation in 2002.
The performance of Jared Goff in 2021 will be central to both the immediate prospects of mounting a playoff challenge and the longer-term direction of the franchise. Goff is still just 26 years old, with a Super Bowl appearance already to his name, and will be given every opportunity to establish himself as a long-term resident in Detroit.
If Goff falters, and the Lions use their extra 2022 and 2023 first-round picks to find their next franchise QB, then Campbell and his team may have to be patient to see the fruits of their labours materialising in wins.
What is certain is that with walking-soundbite Campbell at the helm, this season is unlikely to be boring, and it’s undeniable that he’s brought irrepressible energy and togetherness to a franchise where a massive disconnect had formed between front office, players and the fans.
That alone won’t be enough to judge his tenure a success, but if he can build a team that can at least score some wins against the rest of the division (Matt Patricia’s record was 2-13 and he never beat either the Vikings or the Bears during his reign) then that will provide the fanbase with solace as the Lions look to a brighter tomorrow.
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