In retrospect, the perception of the 2021 Detroit Lions will be that of a team that struggled mightily in a 3-13-1 campaign. When watching the trials and tribulations in real-time, though, this was a team that truly got better as the year went along. Dan Campbell had a memorable introductory press conference that we won’t soon forget. So just how much of it did the Lions live up to in Year 1?
The easiest and most obvious place to start is with the viral clip.
“This city has been down, and it found a way to get up. It’s found a way to overcome adversity. So this team is going to be built on — we’re going to kick you in the teeth, and when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you. And when you knock us down, we’re going to get up. On the way up, we’re going to bite a knee cap off, all right? And we’re going to stand up, and then it’s going to take two more shots to knock us down. And on the way up, we’re going to take your other knee cap…”
One thing that cannot be disputed is that this Lions team took on the personality of their head coach. They gutted out every game. Outside of the lopsided loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, there wasn’t a game where the Lions didn’t empty the tank. It’s something that can’t be measured but is evident through the eye test — you know it when you see it. And this team bought into their head coach and his message despite a lack of success early on. While no kneecaps were literally bitten off, this team repeatedly got up. They posted three wins in the final six weeks of the regular season. With those victories came a slight identity change once Campbell took over play-calling duties after the bye week. He alluded to it back in January.
“Here’s my philosophy on offense, and defense for that matter: We’re going to run a system that puts our best on your worst. That’s what we’re going to do because that’s what we did in New Orleans. We’re going to find a way to put our guys in one-one-one matchups, whether it’s run or pass. If you’re telling me that our left tackle is better than their right end, and we can run outside zone all day – we’re going to run outside zone, as long as we cut off the back side. Why not? If we can exploit a weakness, we’re going to do it.”
While the Lions exploited those opportunities in a couple of games, it wasn’t as easy as putting it into words. Detroit lacks premier talent at many significant positions, so finding a consistent “best” for the Lions against an opposition’s “worst” wasn’t all too easy. The two most prominent examples of this working came in back-to-back games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns.
D’Andre Swift piled up 130 and 136 yards rushing in those two games, respectively. In Tim Boyle‘s first-ever start, Detroit emerged with a tie against the Steelers and a narrow three-point loss to the Browns. The Lions tried finding matchups that put them in advantageous spots. One goal for the offseason should be adding more talent at the skill positions on offense while searching for a franchise quarterback. As for Campbell, he still takes a lot of his inspiration from Sean Payton.
“I’ve learned more football under him (Payton) than as my time as a player, but now as a coach, being under him five years, about how you see the game, how you use your staff, how you hire your staff, situational football, when to go for it, when to not, when’s it time to be aggressive, when’s the time to back off. But a majority of the lessons that I have are from him, so I’ll forever be grateful for that.”
The key word from Campbell’s introductory presser is “aggressive.” Campbell mentioned that he learned from Payton when to be aggressive and when to back off. This year, there may not have been another team as aggressive as the Detroit Lions on fourth down.
Detroit went for it a league-high 41 times on fourth down this year and converted on 21 of them. Along with the fourth-down conversions, they pulled the rug out from underneath their opponents with plenty of trick plays. In their finale, the Lions ran two trick plays that went for touchdowns against the Green Bay Packers and ran wild against the Los Angeles Rams.
There’s plenty of work to be done with the Lions. But even after a 3-13-1 season, they seem to be on the right track for one overriding reason: The team is buying into Dan Campbell. Messages of motivation and concentration can fall on deaf ears when a coach loses a locker room. That’s not the case in Detroit. He wanted this team to take on the character of this city, which they did — and then some. They found opponents’ weaknesses, especially down the stretch, and took advantage; something Campbell prides himself and his staff on figuring out.
It’s hard to predict what next year will hold for the Detroit Lions, but it’s evident they found a leader in Dan Campbell. One year in, many of the messages he was preaching in his first press conference came to fruition.