Redskin

Lions enter Dan Campbell’s second year with increased expectations, optimism


How much does the vibe of an NFL team matter when it’s the second week of May?

This is the time of year — post-draft, pre-OTAs and minicamp — when front offices are basking in the moves they’ve made and every player is in the “best shape of their life” so … probably not much. But, for the Lions, the flowing optimism is at least noteworthy, coming as it does on the heels of the past two offseasons.

Two years ago, with Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn fighting for their jobs, it felt like the entire organization was balancing on the edge of a cliff. Last year, the air certainly was lighter around here, but no one knew what to expect from the Dan Campbell era.

Now? There are still light years between 3-13-1 and the ultimate goals, but you don’t have to squint quite as hard to see the end. Everyone entering the building this spring knows what the expectations are, and they’ve been raised quite a bit from 2021’s tear-down stage.

“That’s definitely the feeling around here: to create a ‘standard,’” wide receiver DJ Chark said Wednesday. “I hear that word a lot. Create something that we can continue to build on and not be second to anyone.”

His teammates, running back Jamaal Williams and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, took it even further.

Williams: “I want to win a Super Bowl. This year.”

St. Brown: “Obviously, everyone’s goal is the Super Bowl. Why shoot for anything lower?”

Those words will be met with a fair bit of eye rolling — the Lions haven’t won a playoff game since the 1991 season, nor a division title since ‘93. The takeaway, though, should focus less on any perceived bravado and more on why Lions players even feel comfortable putting those dreams out into the universe.

Namely, that after a year in which the primary goal (outside of winning a few games) was to entrench this team’s new identity, there is a lot less mystery about what the Lions are and, in turn, about what they could be.

“I think it’s a lot more excitement,” defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike said. “You can feel it with the team. It doesn’t feel like a new team anymore; it feels like we’re already established and we’ll continue from there.”

Last season was about survival. The Lions traded away their franchise quarterback, took hit after hit in free agency, and then had to deal with a ludicrous number of injury headaches. By Week 15 or 16, there were players starting for Detroit who weren’t even remotely on the radar in Week 1 or 2.

Yet, despite it all, the Lions kept swinging — to a point that more or less every free agent GM Brad Holmes added this offseason has mentioned being drawn to that effort level. That’ll only move the needle so much come September, but a more consistent and coherent approach over the coming months should help.

Right there is what Campbell has helped the Lions gain over the past 12 months.

“He’s instilled just belief, man,” cornerback Amani Oruwariye said of his head coach. “For a while, guys went into games (and) I don’t know if they really believed we were gonna win. Every week (last year), we went into a game we knew we were going to win. That’s huge, to have that culture shift in the locker room.”

Keep all that in mind whenever you’re reevaluating Holmes’ tenuous approach to free agency, too. A free-for-all, a wild spending spree — anything that resulted in massive roster turnover — would have threatened the gains the Lions made setting their foundation. In all likelihood, they’ll need to take those risks at some point to reach deep playoff runs or NFC North titles.


Cornerback Amani Oruwariye said of coach Dan Campbell: “He’s instilled just belief, man.” (Raj Mehta / USA Today)

For this specific offseason, Holmes instead leaned into the progress made inside the building.

It’s real. It’s palpable, even before the rookies get here and the real on-field workouts begin. The players feel more comfortable with each other, and with the coaches, and with the schemes. There doesn’t need to be an orientation period that extends through training camp in 2022, because the Lions already powered through that a year ago.

“We just had a young team,” Williams said. “A lot of us just didn’t know that we all gotta stay together. It’s gonna be a long season — guys are gonna make mistakes, every game is different. In the NFL, winning a game could come down to literally two, three plays. … It wasn’t like we was getting blown out and just demolished.

“Two, three more plays of us executing and those could’ve been (wins). This year we’re not gonna play the ‘iffy’ game — what could’ve happened, what should’ve happened. We just gonna go out there and work, learn from what we did last year and just improve.”

Holmes placing such a massive emphasis on intangibles when he drafts falls in line with that growth. Young players like St. Brown and Penei Sewell still have veterans around them, but the future of this team is being molded around their image.

Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph — same thing. All guys who will show up, work, take teaching points, then flip a switch and play a little nasty when they should.

That’s what Campbell wants people to think about when they think of the Lions. Last May, he was just starting to deliver the message. This time around, it’s pre-loaded.

“We know what we went through last year: adversity,” Williams said. “This year, we just gotta take what we did last year, make sure that we bump things, you know what I mean? Push it up. Be greater. Be better than last year.”

(Top photo of Jamaal Williams: Amy Lemus / NurPhoto via Getty Images)





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