The Detroit Lions: Playing Hard, Winning, and Maybe

One second on the clock.

The New York Jets tumbled into formation for a 58-yard field goal attempt. A long shot for sure, but fans of the team on the other side of the ball, the Detroit Lions, were conditioned for the worst.

After all, the Lions had lost games at least three times on late 55-yard-plus field goals. And so often in their history, the Lions had lost games in the final minute, snatching defeat from the jaws of certain victory.

The kick was up and SHORT.

The Lions win. And now boast an even 7-7 record. 

Ordinarily a .500 record is nothing to brag about, but you take what you get when you are the Lions. The team began the season with high hopes, even appearing on the HBO Series Hard Knocks. Then in true Lions fashion, they stumbled out of the gate. Badly. Going 1-6 in their first seven games. 

Same old Lions, as fans are wont to say, because they have lived it. For 65 years. The team has won a single playoff game since 1957. They even went 0-16, the same year they started a quarterback with a broken arm. Really. (Of course, it wasn’t his throwing arm, but still.)

What the Lions teach

The Lions are a lesson for any team, department, or organization that becomes accustomed to underperforming. So how do you right the ship? Well, you get the right people on board and let them go.

The Lions have a coach, Dan Campbell, who has gotten his team — many of them rookies or second and third-year players — to believe in themselves. Getting the team to believe in itself, mainly when its history is one of defeat and defeatism, takes work. Campbell has been a target of fan vitriol for bone-headed calls and more, but one thing since he was hired, his team has not quit on him. They play through the whistle, as football players like to say.

“As the head coach, Campbell is the Lions’ CEO,” writes Justin Rogers of The Detroit News. “He’s responsible for setting and adjusting the tone of the culture. And, when it comes to calming guys’ nerves, he’s the perfect man for the job. He’s demanding, yet doesn’t take himself too seriously. And that may be an understatement. He doesn’t sweat being perceived as the dumb jock or giving a corny speech in a team meeting. He’s beyond comfortable in his own skin, and if a team is supposed to take on the persona of its head coach, getting them to get back to playing loose won’t be an issue.”

What coach Dan Campbell has done applies to non-sports teams. He has lived by the dictum of legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. “If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes real good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.”

Another factor is their quarterback, Jared Goff. He led his previous team, the Los Angeles Rams, to the Super Bowl, then was summarily traded to the Detroit Lions for long-suffering quarterback Matthew Stafford. Goff was, in essence, sent into the equivalent of NFL Siberia. Not once did he complain in public. Instead, he handled himself with poise and professionalism. His fellow players saw in him a quarterback who could lead them.

The Lions boast a defensive line with a young rookie from Michigan, Aidan Hutchinson, who has racked up seven sacks this season. A friend who played college ball says that Hutchinson’s motor is always running. That is football speaks for a player’s drive, determination, and mobility.

On the right path

As the playoffs loom, the Lions have shifted from being doormats to the team that no one wants to play because they are playing well and upsetting the oddsmakers.

Being realistic, the Lions’ chances for the playoffs remain slim. And the Lions being the Lions, the next door they open could be a trap. Their history is one of the pratfalls. But this team seems different, and having rallied from a 1-6 – a mark that in the past would have spelled collapse – to winning six of their past seven games means they are doing something right. And that gives Lions fans something to believe in and for managers and teams facing long odds to find comfort.

One more quote from Bear Bryant that may apply to the Lions and every struggling team is, “It’s awfully important to win with humility. It’s also important to lose. I hate to lose worse than anyone, but if you never lose you won’t know how to act. If you lose with humility, then you can come back.” And so maybe that’s the secret to the Lions’ turnaround; they have been humbled and have not quit.

First posted on 12.19.2022