Detroit Lions State of the Franchise

@Lions on Twitter

Detroit Lions State of the Franchise

NFL

Detroit Lions State of the Franchise

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@Lions on Twitter

The Lions have been officially eliminated from playoff contention for nearly four weeks now, although it was always a pipe dream for Dan Campbell’s group. With extra games out of the question, this young Lions squad is playing to get better, playing for each other, and playing for this new culture being forged by Campbell and Brad Holmes. Let’s take a look at the current state of the franchise.

A culture shift is not an easy or straightforward process. Just ask Zac Taylor, third-year head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals and to everyone’s surprise, this year’s 2021 AFC North divisional champions. Zac Taylor inherited a rather dysfunctional and talent-deficient Cincinnati team and looked dead in the waters for almost two years.

There were public lash outs by longtime defensive veterans (Marvin’s guys), media reports of locker room dismay, and a lack of victories during Taylor’s first two seasons. At the end of the two-year mark, his rookie quarterback tore his ACL and MCL behind PFF’s 30th ranked offensive line, and only amounted to six victories.

However, during those choppy first two seasons, Taylor kept stating a vision the team was headed for and a culture that was being put together. While there wasn’t much on film to be proud of the week to week, Taylor’s – like Campbell’s – squad kept themselves in games they had no business being in. Everyone was counting them out, and they just kept on playing harder than anyone was giving them credit for. 

This is the type of resurgence Campbell is looking to replicate. Like Taylor’s first year, Campbell currently has two wins all with an unproven, injury-riddled, young team (the second-youngest team according to OverTheCap). 42/53 players on the current Lions roster have less than five years of playing experience, not including foundational pieces such as Frank Ragnow and Jeff Okudah as they have sat on injury reserve for the majority of the season.

As the consummate professional he is, Campbell has played well with the cards he was dealt and has frankly never played it safe. Campbell has elected to go for nine onside kicks (recovering three of them). The Lions also lead the NFL with 38 fourth-down attempts (converting 19 of them), seven more attempts than the second-place Washington Football Team (led by “Riverboat” Ron Rivera).

In a coach’s first year, it’s unreasonable to only judge them on their win-loss record. We must look at the state of the franchise they inherited, the cooperation from upper management, and the talent they have surrounded themselves within the coaching and player departments. While the Lions have lost many starters throughout the year, the coaching staff has been busy molding this young team into a group of winners. Long-time ex-players such as Duce Staley (running backs), Antwaan Randle El (wide receivers), or even Mark Brunell (quarterbacks) fill out a coaching staff littered with long-time players or coaches.

Even Dom Capers with 35 years of experience is a senior defensive assistant on the team. The front office has also been aggressive on the waiver wire throughout the season, signing Josh Reynolds who is currently second in receptions yards per game (49.2) second behind rookie standout Amon-Ra St. Brown (50.2). Proving they are willing to shop around and constantly evaluate their squad.

The successes of this team might be hard to identify based on their record, but the consistent level of play Aubrey Pleasant (defensive backs) has received from his young group is one massive indicator of success. This defensive back unit was supposed to be anchored by the second-year player out of Ohio State, Jeff Okudah, who unfortunately suffered a torn Achilles during the season opener.

Through training camp rookies started to emerge, AJ Parker out of Kansas State, cemented himself as the team’s starting nickel back, while Jerry Jacobs and Ifeatu Melifonwu played with passion and relentlessness surprising defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. Fourth-year player Amani Oruwariye earned the starting role behind Okudah and showed the entire NFL why. Oruwariye’s season was cut short after the week 15 matchup against Arizona, a game in which he came away with his team-leading sixth interception of the season, good enough for the third-highest interception count in the NFL. Injuries forced these rookies into the game, and the coaching they received ensured they were able to perform. But in terms of Oruwariye, that boy’s just got IT, can’t wait to see him next year.

Going over to the other side of the ball, the offense received a shake-up before their week 10 matchup against the Steelers. After losing eight straight games Campbell took play-calling duties into his own hands, and away from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. Against Pittsburgh, he ran the ball 39 times gaining 229 total rushing yards, both still season highs. The majority of those runs came behind the 13 personnel grouping with mainly Matt Nelson lining up as the third tight end. The shift in play-calling resulted in the Lions’ first non-loss/tie of the season. The next time the Lions elected to run the ball over 29 times, was 34 runs totaling 126 yards in the shocking upset victory of the Arizona Cardinals in week 15.

The stark difference between Lynn and Campbell’s play calling is calling the plays based on personnel. Entering the season the Lions’ strength on offense was running the ball. Veterans like Ragnow and Taylor Decker, in conjunction with rookie Penei Sewell, excelled in run blocking. They also had a dynamic player in D’Andre Swift out of the backfield paired with down hill runner Jamaal Williams.

The blueprint for 30 plus runs a game was set. Yet during the first seven games, Lynn only rushed the ball more than 25 times on three separate occasions, instead electing to rely on Jared Goff’s arm. Sure, this year the Lions offense has spent most of the game trailing in the scoring department, third-worst in the league in terms of the time of possession while trailing by seven points or more, according to football outsiders. However, they couldn’t continue putting Goff in consistent pass sets with the team struggling to pass block and get open. Campbell played to the personnel’s strengths, Lynn wanted to fit the personnel into his offense.

What does this mean for offensive coordinator Lynn, who was hired to coach the offense and call the plays? Having a majority of your duties taken away from you does not bode well for the first-year Lions coach. Campbell has stated that he would be willing to continue calling plays, but the offense’s production doesn’t necessarily scream “one more year”. Campbell and general manager Holmes have not shied away from moving on from players, take Breshad Perriman, going from WR1 in camp to being released before week one. It’s safe to assume they will be willing to move on from Lynn after this year.

Lynn’s saving grace will be his eye for talent, as he was the one who noticed Godwin Igwebuike in special team drills, deciding to convert him to running back from safety. However, that eye for talent may be useful from someone who is an assistant coach, but more is needed from the offensive coordinator.

Lastly, let’s discuss the Lions quarterback situation. Jared Goff started the season rather timidly, losing the first eight games, but has come on as of late, throwing for three touchdowns twice in the last three games as well as recording above 80% completion rate twice in that span. The shaky start can be attributed to the lack of receiving options that were available to Goff and the inconsistencies in the running game.

The team is handcuffed to Goff for the next three years, paying him ~$5.6 million this year, owing him $10 million next year with an opportunity for the team to part ways in 2023 – while only recording a $10 million dollar cap space hit. 

With the 2022 NFL Draft limited in terms of quarterback talent and so much money tied up with Goff, the Lions need to lie in the bed that they have made. There is no clear better option than Goff for less than what they are currently paying him, in free agency or the draft. At this point, the offense’s weakest link is not the quarterback. Pass protection needs improvement as well as depth. The wide receiver group, outside of St. Brown and Reynolds are in dire need of a facelift.

Even the tight end group has no depth or playmakers outside of TJ Hockenson. The pieces around Goff need to be improved, let him be the offense’s weakest link before moving on. He’s committed to the organization and has six years of experience, including a Super Bowl run; making him the perfect stop-gap quarterback for this motor city rebuild.

It’s visible on film and they are declaring it to the media, there is a culture shift ongoing in Detroit. Dan Campbell is creating something special and the players in the building are recognizing that as well. Two wins is less than ideal.

No one is passing around participation trophies, but the expectation for this team was the floor coming into 2021. No one expected them to go toe to toe with the Packers. To hold a lead over the Ravens until Justin Tucker broke the record for the longest field goal (66-yards) as time expired. Surely no one expected them to defeat the then 10-3 Cardinals.

This team has the one thing you can’t measure with statistics and place on charts, they have heart, and Campbell is four cups of espresso running through those veins. The Lions are better than their record says so this year, although they won’t get that same treatment next year; they need to come out and prove that their culture bears fruit.

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