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The Detroit Lions Are Just Getting Started

Dan Campbell, Jared Goff, and Co. are 6-7 and have a legit shot at making the playoffs. But whether they get to the postseason or not isn’t the point—this team is built for the long term.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Two months into the 2022 NFL season, the Detroit Lions were 1-6. In those seven games, they did exactly what the 2021 Lions had done, which was exactly what every single Lions team has done throughout recorded history. They lost close games they should have won—Week 3 against the Vikings; Week 8 against the Dolphins—in embarrassing fashion. They face-planted against beatable opponents: shut out by the Patriots in Week 5, then trounced 24-6 by the Cowboys in Week 7 coming out of the bye. Head coach Dan Campbell went for fourth downs and the Lions failed to convert, inviting scrutiny from those with the luxury of hindsight. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn captained a turnstile unit, worst in the league in just about everything. Passing game coordinator Aubrey Pleasant was fired midseason, right around the same time that 2021 offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn lost his play-calling duties. The 2022 Lions were the 2021 Lions. Year 2 of Campbell’s tenure was Year 1 all over again, just a little bit later, with a little less patience, with higher expectations and greater underachievement.

Two months into the 2022 NFL season, Campbell had a 4-19-1 record as head coach of the Detroit Lions.

Yet at that moment, Campbell’s plan was working. It would be nice, of course—for head coaches and media members alike—if win-loss records accurately reflected a plan’s workability. But they don’t. They reflect the results of games—games influenced tremendously by luck. So even as Campbell sat there, 1-6 on the season and 4-19-1 overall, the plan was working. Despondent after a 31-27 loss to the Dolphins, Campbell still insisted: The plan was working. The Lions were just one play away.

Since that press conference, the Lions are 5-1—and were just “one play” away from beating the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving and going 6-0. In this recent stretch, the Lions are sixth in team DVOA, behind five Super Bowl contenders. Now 6-7 on the season, Detroit has a 20 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight’s playoff predictor. If they win out—their only remaining game against a team with a winning record comes this Sunday against the New York Jets—they’ll have a 90 percent chance to make the postseason.

Campbell’s plan was working even when the Lions were losing because Campbell’s plan wasn’t about winning—at least, not at first. A lot of new head coaches proselytize their particular culture, preaching the good news of building the right way, building for long-term success; few speak of the hard truths that come inside that pretty packaging. Campbell did. “Of course I want to win now,” he told The Athletic in February 2021. “And we’ll do whatever we can to win now, but not to sacrifice what we can become long term. I look at things two years out—I don’t look at them right now. I want to know where we can be two years from now, even possibly three years from now. I know that’s crazy in this business, but if you want to have long-term success, something you can sustain, something where we can create a winner here in the North for a long period of time, you have to build it properly. You have to have building blocks. You have to have a core.”

It’s just about two years from the time Campbell said that, and the Lions have built it properly. The Lions have a core.

The Lions’ core is a result of Campbell’s patience. This was evident throughout the 2021 season, when he routinely gave reps to younger, underdeveloped players over established veterans who would have lifted the team’s short-term floor. Campbell’s offense began funneling targets to Amon-Ra St. Brown, a fourth-round rookie wide receiver whose efficiency exploded late in the season. This season, St. Brown is a star; he’s eighth in the league in yards per route run, and no other receiver converts more of his third-down routes into first downs.

St. Brown wasn’t the only one. Campbell and Glenn resurrected the career of Jeff Okudah, one of the highest-drafted cornerbacks in the history of football. Okudah had flamed out under the old coaching staff and suffered an Achilles injury to start the 2021 season. In his third season and coming off a major surgery, Okudah’s window to realize his potential as a lockdown CB1 was rapidly diminishing—this season, he’s been one of the best cover men in the league, thrown into the fire against star receivers and delivering on the lofty expectations set for him. And when Okudah missed time last season? Campbell rotated through several players before handing most of those vacated snaps to rookie undrafted free agent Jerry Jacobs, who has now taken over as the CB2 this season opposite Okudah. When 2021 rookie tackle Penei Sewell had to flip sides from left to right tackle? Campbell’s Lions endured the bumpy road and got a star right tackle out of it. When 2022 rookie defensive end Aidan Hutchinson struggled early? The Lions changed his role on defense and reaped the rewards of immediately improved pass-rushing production.

Campbell gets credit for managing an absurdly young roster, for prioritizing development over production. But general manager Brad Holmes gets credit for getting those players in the building. As Campbell so frankly put it, back when he took the job and preached his patience: “We want to build a consistent winner, so that every year we are in position to win the NFC North. There’s one way to do that: You have to build this from the ground up, and it’s gotta come from the draft.”

In his two drafts at the helm of the Lions’ rebuilding efforts, Holmes has steered the team perfectly. Almost every flagship player on the Lions offense—St. Brown, quarterback Jared Goff, Sewell, running back Jamaal Williams—was acquired by Holmes in the 2021 offseason. Goff was tossed into the Matthew Stafford trade, likely for financial reasons (the Lions had the cap space to absorb his contract, and the Rams gave them an extra first-round pick for their troubles). But Goff has been the perfect bridge quarterback in Detroit, better than any journeyman veteran they would have picked up off the street. He’s smart, accurate, and experienced, and he helps young receivers like St. Brown grow. Williams was initially considered a change-of-pace back to D’Andre Swift, but he has taken over as the primary ballcarrier and become one of the league’s most trustworthy short-yardage, goal-line runners behind the Lions’ star-studded offensive line of Sewell, Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, and Jonah Jackson. Sewell was a bit of a controversial pick at the time, but he stepped in as the final piece of that foundational offensive line, and is a third-down pass-catching weapon to boot.

Sewell, Williams, Goff, St. Brown—they aren’t the only hits. The Lions also found Alim McNeill in the third round, Kerby Joseph in the third round, Malcolm Rodriguez in the sixth round, James Houston in the sixth round, and Jerry Jacobs as an undrafted free agent. Detroit is willing to let young players earn playing time, and Holmes is delivering with quality role players and developmental athletes who have rounded out this roster. The few free agents he has brought in—Williams, D.J. Chark, Alex Anzalone, DeShon Elliott, John Cominsky—have filled their roles around them. The starting roster is almost unrecognizable from the one Holmes inherited less than two years ago. Four of the seven players to have taken at least 100 snaps on the 2020 Detroit Lions and the 2022 Detroit Lions are in the secondary: Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Tracy Walker, and Will Harris.

That is incredible roster turnover, the likes of which the league rarely sees. It required full commitment from Holmes and Campbell. They ripped the Lions down to the studs, and in doing so, knew that they’d spend the early year(s) of their tenure with framing uncovered, insulation exposed, drywall yet to be painted, rooms unfurnished. The house was going to get built, live on national television, and it would look ugly for a time. It would look like 1-6, with Campbell putting on a pleading face, promising that his team was just one play away.

“You have to build this properly,” Campbell said back when he took the job. “All I would ask is the fans just hang in with us.”

The fans hung in. Campbell’s Lions kept the faith. The young roster kept getting another week older, another week wiser. And the Lions started winning football games.

Remember: a win-loss record is a difficult thing to trust. Luck has too great of an influence. Sportsbooks in Las Vegas knew this when the 10-2 Minnesota Vikings came to Detroit on Sunday. Despite the Lions’ 5-7 record, they were favored, and they beat the Vikings pretty soundly, too. It would be tempting to say that the Lions have arrived, that Campbell’s plan has been realized, that Holmes’s long rebuild is finally complete.

But this isn’t the case. Rookie wide receiver Jameson Williams scored his first NFL touchdown against the Vikings, in what was only his second game back from injury. Williams serves as a reminder of the continuing development for this still young, still growing team. As he develops, so the rookie quarterback the Lions eventually draft will develop—maybe it’ll be Bryce Young, maybe C.J. Stroud, maybe Will Levis, maybe some 2024 prospect if the Lions continue preaching patience and give Goff another year. There are steps remaining in this rebuild—not so much steps of demolition and reconstruction, but steps of beautification. The master strokes. The finishing touches.

Campbell and Holmes aren’t done—they’re still 6-7, they’re still on the outside looking in. But that isn’t bad news. It’s good news. It means they’re just getting started—no longer just offering the same promises that every new head coach and general manager before them has spun. Not just investing in potential, enduring loss after loss, hoping that close enough is good enough for the time being. No: Campbell and Holmes have proof. This is working. The Lions are roaring back.

Football is better when guys like Campbell and Holmes—true team builders who love their players and love their jobs and love their city and love their team—get the opportunity to do this thing right. Every NFL season, there are more than a few teams rebuilding, some who realize they are, and some that don’t.

A year ago, I wrote that the Lions had the most promising rebuild in the NFL. At the time they were 2-13-1. Now the Lions are 6-7, and they still have the most promising rebuild in the NFL—that, and a little bit more. They have wins. They have proof. They have momentum. No matter what comes next—a disappointment against the Jets, a playoff berth, or anything in between—the Lions are exactly what Campbell promised they would be: built the right way. Built for long-term success.