It’s hard to write about the season ahead in Detroit when it feels like we haven’t quite gotten over the last season of Lions football in the Motor City.
It seems a lifetime ago that Dan Campbell strode into Allen Park back in January 2021, his barrel-chest squeezed into a shiny suit like Vince McMahon about to cut a promo, fanbase skepticism sky-high and morale somewhere in an ocean trench.
Three years of the ‘Poundshop Patriots’ aka the reviled pairing of head coach Matt Patricia and GM Bob Quinn had earned the franchise a 13-29-1 record and a tainted legacy of a broken, demotivated and talent-shy roster.
Ten seasons playing as a journeyman tight end, and a fairly undistinguished coaching resume topped off with four seasons as Sean Payton’s assistant at the Saints did not seem the blue-chip pedigree many expected for an incoming coaching messiah.
The painful 3-13-1 season that followed, when Campbell often seemed lost on the sideline, and incoming OC Anthony Lynn was demoted from play-calling and then fired lowered expectations further.
Campbell’s second season as head coach began well, at least off the field, with a solid draft and the Lions undoubtedly scoring a win in the PR stakes following the team’s well-received pre-season coverage on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series.
Campbell and his backroom team were never short of sideline smack-talk and gritty blue-collar quotables, with the charisma and passion of players like motormouth running back Jamaal Williams shining through to the viewers.
But results on the field still stank, as the Lions went 1-6, showcasing a bewildering gamut of ways to lose a football match, from last-minute chokes to ‘turn-this-shit-off’ blowouts.
After their sixth loss of the season, GM Brad Holmes traded their former first-round pick and Pro-Bowl tight end TJ Hockenson to division rivals the Vikings, seemingly happy to consign another season to oblivion.
Instead, the Lions pulled off something rare - despite losing one of their most proficient offensive options, they started winning; eight of their next ten games to be exact including a convincing 5-0 sweep of their division rivals.
The manner in which they clinched their first winning season since 2017 was the icing on the cake. The Lions arrived at Lambeau Field for MNF with an 8-8 record, eliminated from the playoffs via a Seahawks win earlier in the day. Yet the Packers, also on 8-8 still had a wildcard shot, giving Aaron Rodgers the opportunity for one last playoff tilt.
On a freezing January Wisconsin night, with neither side able to widen the score beyond a single touchdown and under fierce pressure from the vocal Lambeau crowd, the Lions gritted it out to stay in contention until the final quarter, when the defense stepped up to shutout the Packers and Jared Goff took 8 minutes off the clock on a 13 play 75 yard game-winning drive.
Obvious standouts were on the defensive side of the ball, with rookie safety Kerby Joseph picking Rodgers’ final pass in a Packers uniform whilst another rookie, DE Aidan Hutchinson notched two farewell sacks on the Packers’ visibly furious QB.
But the second half of the Lions’ season had been defined by a renaissance of the previously moribund offense, as new OC Ben Johnson, formerly the Lions’ TE coach, brought a creativeness and imagination to their scheme, and here was no better example of this offensive revival than at crunch-time in the Packers game.
On 2nd & 17 as the clock approached the two minute warning in the 4th quarter, Goff threw a quick dart to Amon-Ra St. Brown, who then lateraled the ball backward into the arms of an onrushing D’Andre Swift, Penei Sewell threw a trademark pancake block and Swift in full stride secured vital yardage to keep the drive alive.
With two rushing scores in the game, Jamaal Williams made history with the Lions' single-season touchdown record, surpassing the previous record of 16 set by Barry Sanders in 1991.
There could not have been a sweeter finish to the season which only a few weeks previously had all the makings of another fine Lions mess.
“And another thing, stop playing us, man. We the Detroit Lions! I don’t even watch TV but I heard everybody already picked the Packers over us. Stop playing us!” - Jamaal Williams
Except now, for the first time in memory, the Lions have a real weight of expectation on their shoulders.
Season tickets at Ford Field have sold out. Player jerseys are flying out of the store. Even the national media has woken up to this fearless young Detroit team and their behemoth head coach.
But can the Lions build on their momentum from last year?
Crucially, after a breakout season as a first-time playcaller and three head-coaching interviews this offseason, the Lions have retained the services of Ben Johnson, whose inventive and fearless playbook is now widely credited as rebooting Jared Goff’s career and reinvigorating a misfiring offense. Who can forget the “Penei Sewell is in motion” play with which Johnson iced the game against the Vikings?
Goff, the unwanted makeweight in the Matthew Stafford trade, had arguably his best year in the league, throwing 29 TDs (5th) and 4,438 passing yards (6th) ranking 7th in YPA and 5th for QBR.
Remarkably he only threw 7 interceptions, his last pick coming way back in week 9, as the Lions’ stud offensive line, anchored by Frank Ragnow at centre and bookended by Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell at tackle kept the pocket clean.
Keeping that dominant line together has been another significant achievement in the off-season, to be further strengthened by Halapoulivaati Vatai returning from injury at RG.
In the backfield, both Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift exiting to be replaced by the live-wire veteran David Montgomery from the Bears and the dynamic dual-threat Alabama rookie Jahmyr Gibbs (who the Lions drafted 12th overall) could bring the extra juice to take the already productive offense to the next level.
The departures of Williams and Swift are a telling insight into a mindset shift that has evolved in Detroit’s front office. In previous years someone like Williams, a passionate and vocal locker room motivator and a fan favourite would have been a roster mainstay. But Williams lacked that breakaway speed to penetrate deep into the backfield and with 3 drops from 16 targets in 2022 didn’t have the hands to provide a dual threat.
Montgomery has the versatility and ability to be a genuine 3-down back, and when the Lions made Williams a “disrespectful” contract offer (3 years $8m guaranteed) the Lions found an extra $3m guaranteed that was necessary to snag Montgomery.
Likewise D’Andre Swift, a 2nd round pick in 2020, who had amassed nearly 3,000 yards from scrimmage, while averaging 4.6 YPC and scoring 25 touchdowns for the Lions could have previously expected to earn a big money extension in Detroit.
But Swift’s durability was a constant concern, limited by ankle and shoulder issues that saw him miss multiple games and caused his coaches to question his ability to play through niggling injuries. When Jahmyr Gibbs was taken at #12, the writing was on the wall for Swift.
Let’s not forget that it is less than 3 years since the ghost of Adrian Peterson was the Lions’ principal rushing threat.
Brad Holmes’ ‘villain’ persona is stamped all over a freshened-up offensive roster, a mixture of youth, talent and depth. Players like Williams and Swift don’t cut it anymore.
TJ Hockenson gave the Lions a reliable pair of hands at tight end, but he couldn’t block and seldom gained vital YAC, so Hockenson was shown the door, and in comes Sam LaPorta, the Iowa TE, drafted at #34. An absolute tank at 245 pounds but with route-running nous and the ability to create separation.
The only sour note seems to be the ongoing ‘drama’ around Jameson Williams, the flashy young Alabama receiver who was suspended for the first six games of the 2023 season for violating the league's gambling policy after missing most of his rookie season with a torn ACL sustained in the college championship game.
Williams was used sparingly by the Lions in the final 6 games of the season but a 40 yard run versus the Bears and a 41 yard touchdown catch versus the Vikings showed enough sauce to give the fanbase a tantalising glimpse of his potential.
Sadly, niggling injuries have disrupted his pre-season and an incessant hum of negativity has shadowed him throughout the summer, where every pass dropped or minor skirmish in practice generates countless media ‘think-pieces’ and reaction videos.
Come on Lions Nation, we’re better than this. Don’t click the clickbait, and don’t feed the trolls. The boy will come good.
However, once again it will be the defensive unit that provides the greatest source of sleepless nights to all concerned in Detroit going into week 1.
Statistically, the Lions ranked in the bottom tier of nearly every major category on defense, including points allowed per game, in which they were tied for 28th and YPG in which they ranked dead last.
Forget all the data, the Lions defense felt like a multi-vehicle collision waiting to happen for much of the season, and despite flashes from star rookie Aidan Hutchinson, who picked up 9.5 sacks and three interceptions in 2022 (a remarkable feat for an edge rusher) and rookie safety Kerby Joseph, whose 82 tackles and 4 interceptions surpassed expectations for the third round pick, the defense came up short in multiple games.
Cue major off-season activity from Holmes, with the Lions surprising many draft analysts by taking Iowa’s athletic linebacker Jack Campbell in the first round at #18 followed by trading up with the Packers for Crimson Tide star Brian Branch in the second round at #45.
With the Iowa Hawkeyes, Jack Campbell was the heart and soul of the defense, demonstrating leadership, football IQ, and never backing down from a tackle. The archetypal Dan Campbell player, his selection was a major statement of intent to add a long-term defensive chess piece right at the heart of the Lions fragile defense.
The additions of ex-Steeler cornerback Cam Sutton and especially versatile defensive backs like ex-Saints C.J. Gardner-Johnson and rookie Branch give DC Aaron Glenn some real flexibility and energy in the secondary. Branch has impressed throughout training camp and seems destined to play at nickel. Another off-season addition Emmanuel Moseley has been battling injury since arriving from the 49ers in free agency but should add further strength at corner when fit.
Over the last two seasons the defense has been plagued by injuries, poor tackling, conceding penalties at critical moments and inconsistent individual performances. Even as the team turned it’s fortunes around in the second half of 2022, horror shows like giving up 320 yards rushing to the lowly Carolina Panthers in a blowout loss that ultimately cost them a playoff spot have left stains on the reputation of the much-revered DC Aaron Glenn.
But by the finale at Lambeau Field, with a playoff spot still on the line for the Packers and the Lions playing only for pride, Glenn’s defense at long last resembled the kind of unit that fans have long clamoured for. A nasty, aggressive, violent bunch of playmakers who swarmed the ball and tossed opponents aside.
No excuses, the defense must convert a chunk of this potential into productivity on the field and improve to somewhere near average if Lions have a real shot at winning a wide-open NFC North for the first time since 1993.
A solid, largely injury-free training camp and pre-season has built expectations further, with the Lions showcasing a strength in positional depth rarely glimpsed in recent years. The Boyle/Blough QB ‘battle’ has almost faded from our memories.
This season is very much our window to win. Now, the team has the opportunity to make a huge statement on a national stage.
Validating a genuine revival of interest in the franchise, which usually would be allowed nowhere near a primetime showpiece game, NFL selected the Lions to play in the season-opener on Thursday 7th September at Arrowhead where they will face the Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs.