Do the Detroit Lions have the pieces to turn it around in 2022 NFL season?


ALLEN PARK, Mich. — When you set out to write something positive about the Detroit Lions, there’s got to be a certain amount of wishful thinking involved. And so what, really? The Lions being mostly rancid for generations seems cruel and unusual punishment for any fan base, never mind this good one, so when you see signs the franchise might actually be competent, you leap on it. Like, well, a lion on wagyu.

As a Lions’ May OTA workout finished and 50-some players filed off the field in small groups, player after player came to greet Detroit GM Brad Holmes on the edge of the field. “Bossman!” one said with a big hug. Fifteen, 20 players embraced or bro-hugged or fist-bumped, some stopping for five seconds, some for a minute. This was not the dog days of training camp, or a Wednesday practice with the team on a four-game losing streak, but still it was a little unusual to see this affection for a general manager. PDAs with GMs are not all that common in the world I cover.

“Good observation,” Holmes said when I asked him about it later. “We’ve got a really good group, a group of men who are in this for the right reasons, who really want to win and invest the time in their team. Sometimes we talk about deeper things. I’ll tell them about books I’ve read, lessons I’ve learned. I care about them as people.”

The Lions have won one playoff game in the last 60 years—two less than the Bengals won last January—and we all know that the players being cool with the general manager won’t equate to wins. But it says something to me that players on a team with 11 wins in the last three years might actually like where they are.

This team has some momentum after a competitive end to 2021; Detroit was 3-3 after Dec. 1. I’ll be surprised if they’re not close to .500 this year. Close, to me, is seven or eight wins.

“We kind of feel like we may be Rich Strike here,” head coach Dan Campbell told me.

Rich Strike, the Kentucky Derby winner, who raced to the upset of upsets in that weird, wild race back in May.

“He was 16th with 33 seconds left in the race,” I said.

“One of the most inspiring things I’ve seen in a long time,” Campbell said. “It was impressive. It was beautiful.

“I just think I’ve got guys like Rich Strike. Every time we hear the S-O-L, same old Lions, and all the stuff, I think it fuels our fire. We love it. I think that’s how we all feel. That’s how we all talk. That’s how we all think. There’s nothing fake about it.”

Rich Strike passed the favored horses in the final seconds of the Kentucky Derby. I’m not even going to mention that the Lions close the 2022 season in Week 18 at Green Bay.

Happy to be back in the saddle for another season of Football Morning in America. As we approach the 25th anniversary of this column—I started Monday Morning Quarterback at Sports Illustrated in 1997 and transitioned to FMIA here at NBC in 2018—we’ve got some compelling stories to follow in the run-up to the NFL season. My training camp trip will start in Las Vegas later this week. The Raiders that’s a really interesting story to kick it off.

There will be time to write about Deshaun Watson more than I do this week. Because that story is still very much up in the air, I’ll touch on it here but wanted to bring something from the field to kick off the fifth FMIA season.

I’m more bullish on the Lions than the wiseguys are, more bullish than the NFL is. Detroit’s the only team in the NFL without a primetime game this year, and the Lions are booked for zero network doubleheader windows—the late Sunday afternoon games shown nationally. When the NFL came out with its schedule, the anonymity of the Lions was an exclamation point. Seventeen games, 17 starts at 1 p.m. or 12:30 p.m. ET. The league did assign the Lions to HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” but that’s no sign that playoffs are nigh. Most often, Hard Knocks is about which team the league can arm-twist hard enough to do it.

Hard to blame the Howard Katz scheduling team for consigning the Lions (11-36-2 in the last three years) to Siberia. Everyone wonders about quarterback Jared Goff, everyone wonders about last year’s 31st-rated scoring defense, everyone wonders about how much impact No. 2 overall draft pick Aidan Hutchinson can provide on said defense, and everyone wonders whether the Dan Campbell Way will be more emotional schtick than true winning leadership. I wonder too.

Detroit Lions v Seattle Seahawks
The Lions finished 2021 season with a 3-13-1 record, with all three wins coming after Dec. 1. (Getty Images)

But when you look at teams and try to project the future—and when you try to project a few out-of-the-box things that make sense the following season—you land on teams that showed promise late the previous year and had a good offseason. Check and check for the Lions. And when I visited the Lions in the spring, I saw some things that I did not see in the Matt Patricia Lions (which admittedly is a low bar):

The ’22 Lions fought to the end. Patricia’s 2019 team was 0-9 after Halloween. The Patricia/Darrell Bevell team went 1-6 down the stretch in 2020 and surrendered 30 or more points in their last six games. Last year, the Lions were 0-10-1 entering December, going absolutely nowhere. They finished 3-3, routing the playoff Cardinals. They showed up. They beat the Vikings at :00 on a Goff-to-Amon-Ra St. Brown TD pass. I know Detroit lost in routs to Denver and Seattle late in the year, but players who are mailing it in don’t play the way these guys did down the stretch.

These players respect and will play hard for Campbell. So last year Campbell was tough on the inconsistent Goff—and rightfully so. But who did Goff look to hug after that euphoric win over the Vikings? Campbell. “That’s the way to throw it when we needed it, m—–f—–!” Campbell yelled into Goff’s earhole on the field.

Buy-in. “People outside the building can’t see it, obviously,” Goff told me. “But we have a plan, and we’re all-in. People see some of what Dan says, and that’s great. But I can tell you—Dan knows what the hell he’s talking about, and he’s got the respect of that [locker] room.”

“2021 won’t be in vain, I promise you that,” Campbell told me after this spring practice I saw.

“I know that people are probably tired of hearing foundation and the culture, but I do feel like we set that in year one. I do feel like that for us was the primary goal. We have to create our own style, our own identity, our own culture of who we are, what we accept, what we don’t accept, and now let’s build from there. Now, in year two, we feel like we have that foundation built now. Let’s start stacking on top of it.”

Culture. It’s such an amorphous thing. With Campbell and Holmes, I think the best way to describe it is: We’re never taking a play off, we’re going to import players who love to play, we’re going to be very physical, we’re going to stay together, and nobody’s going to make an excuse. That last thing, about excuse-making, interests me. When coaches get fired, often they have a litany of games they coulda/woulda/shoulda won. You hear it all the time.

Dan Campbell enters his second season in Detroit after going 3-13-1 in 2021.

You won’t hear it from Dan Campbell, or from his players. Example: Baltimore 19, Detroit 17. Justin Tucker’s 66-yard field goal, which hit the crossbar and bounced over, on the last play of the game beat the Lions last October. Seemed cruel. The officials clearly missed a 40-second clock violation by the Ravens in the closing seconds that would have resulted in a 10-second runoff and time expiring—and a 17-16 Detroit win.

Lots of reasons for the Lions to feel jobbed after that game, but Campbell told me he won’t stand for it.

“So Baltimore, what I want to get across is that stuff, ‘Ah, the ref should’ve stopped it, the play clock ran out,’ it’s all irrelevant. What matters is we lost. We caused that. They earned it. We didn’t earn it. We had them exactly where we wanted. We had a sack. The clock’s running. We got them in the fourth down and forever. They executed, and we didn’t. I think those things are important. We don’t want guys that have excuses. We don’t want to talk about excuses. We don’t want to talk about ‘we got screwed.’ To me, winners find a way to win.”

Oldest cliché in football. But it’s been spouted by the best to ever do it. In the end, you are what your record says you are, and no one’s changing the score on Tuesday.

In many ways, 2022 for the Lions is about 2023. This year’s a proving year for Jared Goff—who probably will have a plus receiving corps by Thanksgiving in St. Brown, D.J. Chark and the rehabbing Jameson Williams, plus tight end T.J. Hockenson. That group is more than solid. If Goff plays at a B level and proves his worth, great. If he doesn’t, the Lions save $20.65 million on the 2023 cap by jettisoning him next March. Williams, who might have been the first wideout picked had he not torn his ACL in the College Football Playoff, won’t be rushed this year; drafting him was a long-term play by Holmes. Hutchinson will have expectations this year, but it’s rare that rookie edge players are stars in year one. And Holmes will have two first-round picks again next year.

I wasn’t crazy about Holmes taking on Goff and his big contract after his shaky end with the Rams. But he had to do it if he wanted the two first-round picks. The reality now is that the deal is Stafford for Goff, Jameson Williams and a 2023 first-round pick, give or take the millions for Goff and some other draft tentacles. If the two ones next year have to be packaged for a QB in the draft, then it’d be Stafford for Williams and a new quarterback. And man, there’d be pressure on Holmes to pick the right QB of the future, and on the QB to produce at a playoff level. That’s some pressure.

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions
Quarterback Jared Goff, coach Dan Campbell and the Lions were euphoric after a last-second win over the Vikings in December. (Getty Images)

Goff knows this is a crucial year in his football life. It’s already been an eventful 2022. In his California house on Super Sunday, Goff watched Matthew Stafford, the man who replaced him (and who he replaced here), win a Super Bowl on the SoFi home field Goff had christened a year earlier. “No bitterness—I guess that’s the way people would expect me to feel,” Goff said. “Happy for my former teammates and coaches, but as a competitor, of course, I want to win one too.” The Lions promoted tight ends coach Ben Johnson to offensive coordinator, and then drafted Williams in a first-round shocker in April.

But we still don’t know if Goff can put a stranglehold on the job in 2022. He did leave a positive impression down the stretch in 2021, going 3-1 in his last four starts (103.3 rating, 67-percent accuracy, 26.5 points per game). Goff’s Detroit future—and probably his starting future in the NFL—will depend on whether he can be a consistent starter and fourth-quarter impact player with his rookie coordinator calling the shots. Goff needs to be better, much better, in crunch time. TD-interception ratio in the first three quarters of games last year: 16-to-3. In the fourth quarter: 3-to-5.

I expect the Lions to emphasize short and intermediate accuracy in the Johnson offense, because that’s where Goff is efficient. That could change when the game-breaking Williams comes back. (There’s no projection right now, but post-Thanksgiving is a safe bet.)

“I think Goff’s in a real good place.” Campbell said. “Finished strong last year. I like the fact that we’ve got pieces around him that I think are going to help pull the most out of him. We’ve got some pieces here that complement each other that really will help him be the best that he can be. Listen, he’s an accurate quarterback. That’s what he does well. He can throw the football and he can put it right on the money.”

We’ll see. One story about the man who could help save Goff that I learned here:

Holmes, in almost two decades with the Rams climbing the scouting ladder, adopted this drafting mantra: Don’t pick hurt guys in the first round. Too risky. Williams played just one season at Alabama after transferring from Ohio State, but his 19.9-yards-per-catch average on 79 catches vaulted him to strong first-round candidate as 2022 dawned. But on Jan. 10, in the national title game, Williams tore his ACL.

On an April Sunday, three months after the injury and a couple of weeks before the draft, Holmes took a free day to watch the top receivers—including Williams. He sat home, just him and the video. And he fell in love with Williams, over all the other receivers. “I had Jameson in his own box,” Holmes said. “You want to be as sure as possible with first-round players, of course, and I was absolutely convicted on Jameson the speed, how fluid he was, how confident he played. I consulted with our medial team, and they felt it was a clean ACL tear.

“So now I had to get comfortable with picking an injured player. I thought, I can’t preach to our organization to be open-minded with their decisions if I’m not going to be open-minded myself.”

NFL: APR 28 2022 Draft
2022 NFL Draft 12th overall pick Jameson Williams and commissioner Roger Goodell. (Getty Images)

The thought of having a franchise receiver for, say, a few games this year and maybe eight years more outweighed the risk of Williams breaking down again to Holmes. He didn’t have to convince Campbell, who also felt Williams was well worth a first-round pick. Then it was up to Holmes to move up to a spot to get him from late in the round. It cost the 32nd and 34th picks (other picks were involved) to move to the 12th slot and, God forbid, Holmes traded with a division rival to do it. He moved up 20 slots in a deal with Minnesota. “I’m not into the old-school, archaic way of never trading within the division,” Holmes said. “It made a ton of sense for both teams.”

On New Year’s Day, Hutchinson and Williams were lock top-10 picks. Maybe top-five. The Lions got them second and 12th overall, with the obvious asterisk on Williams, and they’re euphoric. Hutchinson’s that rare player who actually wanted to get picked by Detroit, his hometown team. That was his choice, and his family’s. Good sign for the Lions. Hutchinson, at Michigan, was a strong run player who also was a terror on quarterbacks. Detroit allowed 31 TD passes and a pathetic 101.0 passer rating last year, so the need for Hutchinson to be impactful right away is great.

This is time of the column for the pithy quote summing up the optimism of a long-downtrodden team. I don’t have one. This team will be better, without question. This team will be significantly better only if Goff is consistently productive, and if he bonds well with the new coordinator, and if he gets familiar fast with Jameson Williams—whenever he returns. Those are big ifs. But that’s the truth about the 2022 Lions, who should be a fascinating watch.

Read more in Peter King’s full Football Morning in America column