There are multiple ways to look at the beginning of the Detroit Lions rebuild so far. First there’s the very simple box score way. The Lions won two games in 2021. “How could anyone think this was a success?” If you feel this way, that’s your purgative and that’s cool. I just think you're just being incredibly short sighted and you’re wrong. Let’s move on.
The other way to look at this rebuild is to look at the many positives that far outweigh the Lions two win season. Let’s take a look at those positives and how they impact the future.
Culture and identity is established
Right off the bat, the Lions have established themselves in the NFL as a team that is not going to stop fighting. Lost in Dan Campbell’s now-infamous knee cap speech was that the Lions were going to be a team that kept fighting and would keep fighting after they got knocked down. This is exactly what the Lions did in 2021. They fought and they never stopped fighting. Dan Campbell installed a culture, and the Lions bought into it and never walked away from it.
That’s huge. There are a lot of examples of teams trying to install a culture and failing right away. The Jacksonville Jaguars are good example of that. While the Lions only won two games in 2021, this puts them ahead of a lot of teams that are struggling to get right and it puts them ahead of their own schedule.
Brad Holmes nailed this rookie class
The Lions didn’t draft a bunch of overnight superstars. They didn’t get Ja’Marr Chase or Micah Parsons. That’s totally fine. What it appears the Lions did get is a group of guys that could be long-term starters for the Lions for a while. After some early bumps in the road, Penei Sewell has turned into one of the best rookies in the league and one of the better right tackles in the NFL. Amon-Ra St. Brown has been a revelation since the bye week and could wind up being the Lions’ top receiver going forward.
Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill and Derrick Barnes have all shown flashes of a future where they’re top contributors for the Lions. Ifeatu Melifonwu had his rookie season derailed by injury, but he’s finishing the season getting valuable experience against talented receivers.
The Lions undrafted crew have wowed everyone this season. Both Jerry Jacobs and AJ Parker have carved out starting spots for themselves due to injury and have made the most out of them. Jacobs was on his way to having one hell of a rookie year before a season ending ACL injury put him on the shelf.
Rebuilds live and die by the selection of young talent, and Holmes looks to have done pretty well in Year 1.
The Lions coaching staff has taken what’s been given to them and have developed it well. At the beginning of the year players like Tracy Walker, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Charles Harris looked like they may not be long for the roster beyond 2021. Now they’re all players that the Lions need to find a way to bring back.
Tracy Walker has quietly become one of the better safeties in the league in 2021. Charles Harris is looking like the first-round pick that the Miami Dolphins hoped he’d be when they drafted him with the 22nd pick in 2017. Jalen Reeves-Maybin looks like a man reborn out there. Finally given a true opportunity to play on defense, Reeves-Maybin has shown speed and awareness out there.
It’s not just them. The Lions have taken a lot of players and made them better as the season has gone on. Jared Goff, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond all saw improvement once Detroit’s coaching staff got their hands on them.
They’ve almost got the right coaching staff
The Lions coaching staff, in my opinion, has been a big success. Dan Campbell, of course, has been a great leader, and the team has rallied around him all season long. Aaron Glenn has been phenomenal with the Lions defense considering what he’s had to work with. Yeah the Lions just allowed 51 points on Sunday, but one really bad performance with a depleted roster shouldn’t define Glenn’s season. There’s a chance teams might pull him in for head coaching interviews in the offseason.
Where things get cloudy is the Lions offensive coordinator spot. The Lions offense was pretty bad when Anthony Lynn was calling plays. With Campbell at the helm, the Lions offense has undeniably seen a spark. This could potentially mean the Lions will be looking for a new offensive coordinator in the offseason.
That guy might be on the staff already. Tight ends coach Ben Johnson has received a lot of praise and has been given a fair amount of credit for putting together some of the Lions’ more creative plays this season. He might be due for the big promotion this offseason if the Lions look to fill the role.
Lastly there’s Dave Fipp. The Lions’ special teams unit has been really good in 2021. It seems they have their kicker now in Riley Patterson and Jack Fox has been a great punter again, too. Detroit has pulled off more fake punts and onside kicks than the rest of the league. Most importantly, the Lions have been good on both sides of the field positioning game. They’re not the team that allows big returns and they often set themselves up well without a ton of penalties.
They’re not out of the hole yet
While I think the Lions are ahead of schedule on this rebuild and things are going to be successful for them, it’s important to remember that the work is not done yet. Don’t expect this team to come out win the NFC North next year. It think it’s possible to make the playoffs if they have a home run offseason, but that’s hard to do.
There are still a lot of questions to be answered. The most important one is at quarterback. Are the Lions going to marry themselves to Jared Goff after some impressive play in the second half of the season or are they going to spend the offseason looking for his replacement?
The Lions still have to have a good draft. They’re well stocked with draft picks. And while Holmes found a few great players last year, great general managers are capable of doing it year after year. Nailing back-to-back drafts is easier said than done.
What are the Lions going to do at OC? Can they get players they like to come back? Can they get free agents to come to Detroit? Can they turn the positives of the 2021 season into wins in 2022?
I don’t know. That’s why at this point we aren’t crowning the Detroit Lions and patting them on the back for getting the job done. The organization deserves credit for what they’ve achieved in 2021, but now the real work begins. Because now that most Lions fans have bought in, you have to actually start producing results.