ALLEN PARK, Mich. — It’s easy to get swept up by the Detroit Lions right now, given the team’s appearance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and its amiable quote machine of a head coach. But beyond the entertainment factor, there is something happening around this organization that legitimately feels like optimism. It’s the type of energy that goes unnoticed from people who don’t see the daily operation up close or who justifiably maintain skepticism about a franchise that has rarely qualified for the postseason. The Lions have established some key benchmarks that factor into success, including belief, hunger and commitment. This year, they might have just enough talent to turn those traits into vast improvement.
Yes, those are heavy expectations for a team that has made just three playoff appearances this century, winning one postseason game since its 1957 NFL championship. That fruitless past has always been the major reason why people shy away from casting too much hope on the Lions. The difference now is that head coach Dan Campbell has created a culture that bears a striking resemblance to those teams that often thrive in this league. The former Lions tight end has done it by being himself and stressing the same level of authenticity from this team. Anybody who’s heard Campbell speak knows he doesn’t give a damn about how he appears. His players operate with a similar indifference, that getting results matters far more than what’s gone on in the past.
“We’re on a path where we feel like we can make noise,” second-year wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “The Lions organization has been an underdog for a long time now. But organizations can flip around quick. Look at the Bengals. Last year, they went to the Super Bowl, and the year before that, they were at the bottom of the league. All it takes is a few guys to buy in.”
That is a critical point to remember. Nobody was talking about the Bengals doing what they ultimately did at this stage last season. They blossomed because they combined game-changing talent with a smart, young head coach and never once let their history dictate their future. They built their success while everyone else was chuckling and dismissing them — and nearly snagged their first Lombardi Trophy in the process.
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These Lions aren’t at the point where it’s safe to think they’ll bully their way to the top of the NFC. A playoff spot, on the other hand, is a real possibility in a conference with plenty of flawed teams. The Lions have a veteran quarterback who has played in the Super Bowl (Jared Goff), a handful of promising skill players (including St. Brown, tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift) and an offensive line that features three former first-round picks. They have a shiny new, instant-impact edge rusher in Aidan Hutchinson who grew up in a suburb of Detroit and became a Heisman Trophy runner-up at the University of Michigan. They also have a last-place schedule working in their favor, as they’ll play 11 games against teams that didn’t qualify for the postseason in 2021.
There’s no mystery as to what this team wants to be: nasty and physical. And it’s not a coincidence that so many assistants on Campbell’s staff — including running backs coach Duce Staley, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and wide receivers coach Antwaan Randle El — thrived as players in this league because of their blue-collar attitudes.
“We are aligned in terms of what we want this thing to look like,” Lions general manager Brad Holmes said. “It’s about grit. And when you talk about grit, it’s about how much longer you can go than your opponent. It’s not just duration — it’s how much stronger can you be, how much more physical can you be. It’s will power.
“We played so many young guys last year. We had to go through those growing pains and take those lumps. Now we’re expecting a year or two leap from these guys.”
Holmes — who, like Campbell, is in his second year on the job — agreed something happened toward the end of last season that was noteworthy for this team. Winless through the first 11 games — including a 16-16 tie with Pittsburgh — the Lions earned all three of their victories after November. Young teams that struggle that much over the first few months of the season often tap out at some point. This squad kept grinding, kept listening and kept thinking that it deserved something after all its efforts.
That’s worth remembering when Campbell utters a memorable quote or does something unconventional, as he did when he held a practice earlier this week that was run entirely by the players. At times last year, Campbell sounded like a man in over his head and fueled by too much chewing tobacco and energy drinks. This year, he feels more like a nutty professor, an inspirational leader who isn’t afraid to operate off-script.
The players he’s leading obviously see the value in what he’s preaching and believe they’re heading toward bigger things. As St. Brown said, “In this league, every year is a new year. So going into this year, we understand it’s a new year and that’s what I love about it. Whatever happened last year happened. The bad stuff, we want to leave behind, and the good stuff, we want to take with us.”
The Bengals used that approach to change their perception in 2021. The Lions are poised to do the same thing this coming fall.
FIVE MORE NFL BEACONS OF HOPE
While we’re talkin’ optimism heading into the 2022 campaign, let’s spotlight some additional areas of promise across the NFL. These five subjects have more to do with hope than hype.
Since Lance was the only quarterback taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft who didn’t have a chance to be a full-time starter as a rookie, we’re about to see if the 49ers handled him the right way. The smart money says we’ll be impressed. Lance possesses the kind of skills that head coach Kyle Shanahan has always coveted for his offense but failed to find: a strong arm and mobility. Lance can stretch the field with deep passes — something that hasn’t been a staple of this team in years — or demoralize defenders with his improvisational ability. He’ll also do that within the confines of a system that is tremendous at running the football and boasts two of the best weapons in the game in tight end George Kittle and wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Forget about all the concerns revolving around how much experience Lance had at North Dakota State before entering the league. Patrick Mahomes sat for a year in Kansas City before blowing up as a full-time starter. Lance has the potential to do similar things in San Francisco.
Ryan will be the best quarterback the Colts have put under center since Andrew Luck retired prior to the 2019 season. Yes, he’s 37 years old. He’s also coming off a season in Atlanta where he had limited weapons around him and still managed to complete 67 percent of his passes while throwing 20 touchdowns against 12 interceptions. Just as was the case with his predecessors in Indianapolis — specifically, Carson Wentz last year and Philip Rivers in 2020 — the Colts don’t need the quarterback to be a superhero to be successful. They only need Ryan to make the plays Wentz couldn’t produce consistently, the kind that move the chains and capitalize on the extra attention defenders have to give to reigning rushing champ Jonathan Taylor. Indy wants its play-action game to be dangerous again. Ryan still has enough left to deliver on those expectations.
Sometimes it feels like the Bengals didn’t actually play in the Super Bowl last season. They don’t receive enough buzz for that achievement, nor do they get much hype after addressing their biggest weakness in the offseason. The Chiefs spent the 2021 offseason retooling their offensive line and they were extensively lauded for their efforts to better protect Patrick Mahomes. The Bengals followed suit this offseason … and it barely registered beyond southern Ohio and northern Kentucky. Something says the players in Cincinnati like it that way. Joe Burrow was sacked more than any other quarterback in the league last season; with the playoffs, that sum reached a whopping total of 70. He now has three new blockers up front — center Ted Karras, right guard Alex Cappa and right tackle La’el Collins — along with all those skill players who made this offense so deadly in the first place. As with the Colts when it comes to Matt Ryan, the Bengals don’t need this O-line unit to be exceptional in order to win. Consistency will do just fine with everything Cincinnati has going for it.
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach has spent the past seven months cobbling together a defensive line that can be more effective than what the Chiefs offered in 2021. That unit was a major reason why Kansas City ranked 29th in the NFL in sacks. It still has a disruptive presence in Pro Bowl defensive tackles Chris Jones, but now there’s more around him to be optimistic about. Defensive end Frank Clark has disappointed over the last couple of years, but he’s slimmed down and talking about playing at a higher level this fall. Rookie DE George Karlaftis has impressed in practice with his relentlessness and in preseason games with his productivity. He definitely qualifies as somebody who plays with his hair on fire. Finally, the signing of 33-year-old edge rusher Carlos Dunlap after training camp started was a sneaky-good move. He operated as a situational pass rusher in Seattle last season and still wound up with a team-high 8.5 sacks. If Dunlap can provide similar disruption in Kansas City, this pass rush will be much improved.
All the talk in Miami justifiably revolves around the critical development of third-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Realistically, McDaniel, the Dolphins’ first-year head coach, is the man who will determine what Tagovailoa becomes. This isn’t a quarterback who possesses the same jaw-dropping skills of Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen or Justin Herbert. Tua needs great personnel around him — which the Dolphins have provided through various offseason moves — and even better coaching. McDaniel spent plenty of time watching how Kyle Shanahan utilized Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco. That approach helped the 49ers reach the Super Bowl in the 2019 campaign and return to the NFC Championship Game last season. Shanahan made the most of Garoppolo’s strengths — especially by relying on a dominant rushing attack — and rarely asked the veteran quarterback to play outside of his comfort zone. It would be shocking to see McDaniel try a different approach with Tagovailoa. The Dolphins have plenty of speedsters who can dominate with the ball in their hands (including wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle and running backs Chase Edmonds and Raheem Mostert). If McDaniel schemes up ways to feed them, his offense and his postseason chances will be just fine.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.
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