Bolstered by redone offense, Detroit Lions’ growing optimism is impossible to miss in Year 2
ALLEN PARK — Running back Jamaal Williams was asked what he thought of the Detroit Lions landing on “Hard Knocks.” It was an obvious question because her infectious personality is sure to be featured on the hit HBO show. Then Williams leaned into the mic, lowered his voice to such a whisper he was basically just saying the words, and said exactly what he really thought.
“I don’t care (beep),” he said. “I just want to play football. All that is for me is more cameras walking around staring at me. I do not care. I just want to play football. And I want to win a Super Bowl. This year.”
Yes. Jpipe Detroit Lions.
the Super Bowl.
Your eyes have surely rolled in the back of your head now, which is an appropriate human response. The Lions have won just one playoff game since 1957, none since 1991, and have finished in last place since the day they fired Jim Caldwell. And that day was nearly half a decade ago.
No team has gone from three Super Bowl wins in one leap since… well, ever. No one has ever done it. And no one really thinks the Detroit Lions can either. They have the longest odds to win the Super Bowl, or the second longest odds, or the third longest odds, depending on which bookmaker you prefer. And with good reason. This is a long-term rebuild only entering its second season, with question marks all over the pitch and, crucially, below centre.
Then again, it’s impossible not to feel like the optimism now pouring out of Allen Park comes from a more authentic place than the garden variety coach language that’s coming out of the ground across the league at this time of year. The Lions really got into the whole culture building thing last year, and it’s hard not to believe it started to take hold at 222 Republic Drive. Because not everyone can be silent about the difference with, say, two years ago, when a whole regime was on the brink of elimination.
“It’s really us coming in with a new mindset, which already comes with knowing we’re going for a Super Bowl,” Williams said. “We have to have the mindset now first and foremost. Last year is last year. It’s a new year.
Super Bowl. Super Bowl. Super Bowl.
According to unofficial transcripts, there were 12 references to the big game when a handful of players walked through the press room at team headquarters on Wednesday afternoon. Which seems like a lot for the only team to exist for every Super Bowl and none.
Even they recognize that the belief has not always been there.
“For a while the guys were in games (and) I don’t know if they really believed we were going to win,” cornerback Amani Oruwariye said.
“I think it’s on everyone’s mind, it’s the Super Bowl,” wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “Obviously our goal is to win the division. You win the division, you make the playoffs. So that’s our goal right now, is to win the division and make the playoffs. But obviously everyone’s ultimate goal is the Super Bowl.
“I mean, why shoot for something lower?”
Much of the optimism stems from an offense that, on paper, looks to be pretty good. The Lions used three first-round picks and a free-agent spending spree to build one of the best young offensive lines in the league. This group never played together last year due to injuries, but now left tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragnow are healthy. Add in the return of Penei Sewell, who opened last season as the youngest left tackle in NFL history before ending the season as one of the league’s best right tackles, not to mention Jonah Jackson who coming off a Pro Bowl season at left guard and Halapoulivaati Vaitai at right guard, and hey, this unit is not only the strength of the team, but possibly one of the best in the league.
“We can be the best,” Jackson said.
How’s that for shooting high?
The Lions also fire all five backs from a rushing game that produced the most yards per carry since 1998, despite all the injuries and peculiar starting combinations they produced up front. But where the real excitement starts to build is on the perimeter, where the Lions signed a receiver with 4.34 speed (DJ Chark) before drafting another with, well, who knows. what Jameson Williams would have run at the combine. But whatever it was, it was going to be faster than that. Because this guy was clocked at 23 mph last year in Alabama.
The number of NFL players who have been clocked this fast: [error file not found]
With that kind of speed on the outside, it should create more space for everyone to work from below and in midfield. And if you watched Amon-Ra St. Brown play football any time after Thanksgiving last year, you already know how dangerous it could be. Because this guy has caught more balls than anyone else in the league during that streak, despite being a rookie trying to function in an offense that has been decimated by injuries and a general inability to throw the ball in the field.
Although things did improve after Josh Reynolds was claimed waivers. Oh that’s right. Josh Reynolds. He averaged a ridiculous 16.1 yards per catch in Detroit last season – but this guy could come off the bench any time Williams comes back at full speed after his ACL injury, which tells you something about the depth of the attack. to.
Then there’s TJ Hockenson, who led all NFC close passes just two years ago and was on course for even better numbers last year until he suffered a season-ending thumb injury. Then there’s D’Andre Swift, who led all running backs in catches until he suffered his own injury on Thanksgiving. There are so many places to go with football, all led by a young offensive coordinator named Ben Johnson who drew rave reviews for saving the offense last season.
The Lions always have legitimate questions at the quarterback, which are the worst questions to ask. This offense could go as far as Jared Goff’s heavily guarded right-hand man can take it. But if Goff is as good as the Lions think he is – and the Lions still think he’s pretty good – then hey, maybe this offense really is ready to compete after all.
“I really do (I think we’re a complete offense), I really do,” St. Brown said. “I was thinking about it the other day. We really have a pretty good attack, starting from a solid O line, we have great tight ends that can catch the ball and block, our ball carriers are all very solid, they can all do different things. Added a few receivers, we’re all — I mean, I think we’re a complete offense now, if you ask me. So I’m excited to see what we can do.
The defense faces more question marks, although it may be and all, they also look better on paper. That’s especially true up front, where Detroit added passing throwers like Aidan Hutchinson (second overall pick) and Josh Paschal (second round) to a unit that added Day 2 picks like Levi Onwuzurike and Alim. McNeill last season. It’s a landmark investment project in Detroit’s defensive line.
“I think everyone has a chip on our shoulders, especially us rookies entering second year,” Onwuzurike said. “You can just see it in our team, man. We’re right here in the field doing some field work and you can just feel the camaraderie. Everyone is just trying to improve. There is a plan. There is a mission we have, you can just feel it. You don’t even have to say anything. Even when we talk there, you can just feel it as a team.
That feeling is impossible to miss these days at Allen Park. It’s called optimism, and it’s been a long time since it’s been felt so genuinely around us. There are still some serious question marks at quarterback, linebacker and possibly secondary, depending on how it all works out with Jeff Okudah. If those perceived weak spots become real weak spots, then maybe the Lions will have another long year of rebuilding.
But if those questions get answered along the way, the Lions may well have a shot at competing in an NFC North that has been upended by regime changes in Chicago and Minnesota. The Lions seem to think it’s possible.
“As long as everyone has the same mindset that we’re going for the Super Bowl and we’re going to win the Super Bowl — well, we have a chance,” Williams said. “Our main goal is to get this ring, and that’s going to come with all of us sticking together. And there are a lot of people on this team who are even more excited than me about our goal, about what we want to do this year and how special we want to be.