Maybe Dan Campbell was right all along. As newly appointed Detroit Lions head coach in January 2021, Campbell gave one of the most memorable introductory press conferences.
‘What I do know is that this team is going to take over the identity of this city. And this city fell and found a way to rise again. It has found a way to overcome adversity,” said the gruff, bearded Campbell, standing 6-foot-4 in a former Lions tight end.
“So this team is going to be built: We’re going to kick you in the teeth, okay, and if you knock us back, we’re going to smile at you, and if you knock us down, we’re going to get up. And on the way up we bit off a kneecap.’
Stirring things. And it was easy to spot. The lions were the lions, after all. Built in the Motor City, Detroit is synonymous with clunkers and non-starters.
The Lions are one of four franchises to have never played in a Super Bowl. They are the only NFL team this century without a playoff win; their last postseason victory came on January 5, 1992.
Dan Campbell gave one of the most memorable introductory press conferences of 2021
But under Campbell as head coach, the Detroit Lions have become remarkable
One of four franchises to never play in a Super Bowl, Detroit is currently 5-1
Under Rod Marinelli, they were the first team to go winless in a 16-game season in 2008. During an upturn in form in the 2010s under Jim Schwartz and then Jim Caldwell, the Lions reached the play-offs three times. And lost all three.
The popular Caldwell was fired in 2018 and replaced by Bill Belichick disciple Matt Patricia. His three-year term was marked by disaster and invective as he called out – and sent out – his stars. Unsurprisingly, players despised him and many were openly happy when he was sacked after three seasons and a record of 13 wins, 29 defeats and one draw.
Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes entered. Then Ben Johnson as offensive coordinator and Aaron Glenn as defensive coordinator. All four men have played important roles in a cultural shift and identity change that has rebuilt the Lions.
It features Campbell, who wears his heart on his sleeve and became a star of the hit NFL behind-the-scenes show Hard Knocks last summer.
Detroit has put together one of the NFL’s best rosters by acquiring a cast of prove-it free agents such as linebacker Alex Anzalone and cornerstone draft picks Penei Sewell, Amon-Ra St Brown, Aidan Hutchison and Brian Branch.
They acquired quarterback Jared Goff (the No. 1 overall pick of the 2016 draft) in March 2021 in a trade that saw Matthew Stafford (the Lions’ No. 1 overall pick of the 2009 draft) go to the LA Rams.
In 2019, Goff had led the Rams to Super Bowl LIII, losing 13-3 to the New England Patriots. But the Rams wanted an upgrade at quarterback and sent Goff and two first-round draft picks to Detroit. In a classic Lions result, Stafford won the Super Bowl in his first season in LA after toiling in Detroit for the previous 12 years.
Goff’s future with the Lions has always looked uncertain. Never more so than after starting 1-6 last season, and the Lions did their homework on standout quarterbacks CJ Stroud of Ohio State and Bryce Young of Alabama ahead of next year’s draft. For everyone, their year was over.
They lifted the curtain this year with a win over Super Bowl champion Kansas City
They acquired quarterback Jared Goff (the No. 1 overall pick of the 2016 draft) in March 2021.
But something remarkable has happened since then.
In the next 16 games they won 13 and lost only three. Along the way, they’ve defeated three of last year’s playoff teams. They lifted the curtain this year with a win over the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs – on the road.
Detroit is one of five teams that are 5-1. They have won their last four games – all by double-digit margins, tying a franchise record set in 1969.
They won in different ways, the mark of a decent team. One week their offense scores points, the next week they can rely on their defense to keep the opponent’s score down.
Behind a strong offensive line – the unit is ranked No. 1 in the league according to football experts PFF – Goff looks like a smart veteran. With receivers St Brown and Josh Reynolds already amassing nearly 800 yards between them, the Lions have won despite injuries to running backs David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs.
Until now, that is. On Sunday, they travel to Baltimore to take on the 4-2 Ravens and their fearsome defense, the No. 2 unit in the NFL.
It’s the perfect test for Campbell and the Lions – and will certainly provide a box-office spectacle this weekend.