It’s officially the bye week for the Detroit Lions, and it’s time for some serious self-reflection. Like many of you, I found Sunday’s blowout loss to the New England Patriots extremely frustrating, and I found myself questioning a lot of things about this entire regime.
It’s irritating to be 22 games into this new era of Lions football and have little tangible results. For coach Dan Campbell to only have four wins through those 22 games while the Jets are 3-2 and the Giants are 4-1, it just leaves you wondering, “When is it going to be our turn?”
Of course, we’re still early in the season, and as the saying goes, wins are never as good as they look and losses are never as bad.
So now a couple of days removed from Sunday’s game, here are eight things I think about both the Detroit Lions and Dan Campbell.
1. Any talk about firing Dan Campbell is extremely premature, but it’s okay to start wondering. The last time the Lions fired a non-interim coach less than 25 games into their reign was 1942. Some sense of stability is needed for a franchise to succeed, so giving up on this rebuild in 1.5 years is ridiculous, and a non-starter. The Lions aren’t going to do it, and they shouldn’t
But it’s fair to start wondering if he’s the guy. Campbell is someone who often goes with his gut for in-game decisions, and we’ve seen that go in both directions (more on that later). More importantly, though, it seems like this team is getting schematically outplayed as of late. The Seahawks had every answer for a Lions defensive pressure. The Patriots had a defensive game plan that had the offensive line saying things like this:
“They did a great job, they schemed up a lot of games, a lot of stunts, and we just have to do a better job executing on that, learning from it.” — Frank Ragnow
It’s one thing to get outplayed by better players, but Detroit arguably has equal or better rosters than their last two opponents, and they were pretty thoroughly outplayed by both.
2. The Lions run game isn’t as good as they think it is. Sure, the Lions’ biggest strength is their rushing attack, but it’s time to admit that Detroit is relying on it a bit too heavily in key moments. Part of the reason Campbell is so confident on fourth and short is because he believes his offensive line can impose their will on the defense. But here’s the sad truth of the situation, the Lions have been bad at running the ball on third and fourth-and-short. According to Football Outsiders, the Lions’ success rate in power situations (third/fourth and short or goal-line situations) is just 53 percent, which ranks 28th in the NFL.
Also, go back to the Vikings game. Detroit attempted to run out the clock with their rushing attack. Heading into the fourth quarter with a 10-point lead, the Lions ran the ball 14 times for just 47 yards (3.4 yards per carry), while they only threw the ball four times with the lead.
Good running teams can run the ball efficiently during the first three quarters. Great running teams can run it effectively when everyone knows you’re going to run it. The Lions are not a great running team yet.
3. I don’t have a problem with Dan Campbell’s aggressions... at all. Campbell defended all six of his fourth-down decisions from the Patriots game, despite going 0-for-6 on those opportunities, and I don’t have a problem with that. Fourth-and-9 was certainly his most questionable decision, but I can at least respect his honesty that he didn’t trust his kicker to make a 50-yard kick. So, for him, the decision looked like this: neither fourth-and-9 nor a 50-yard field goal looks like a high-percentage play, but the payoff of potential success on fourth-and-9 is much greater, while a failed attempt on either is essentially even. Unfortunately for Campbell, his risky decision was magnified when Detroit absolutely blew the play, and instead of just a failed conversion, it turned into an immediate touchdown for the Patriots.
4. Brad Holmes needs to take the kicking game more seriously. Detroit’s lack of a reliable kicker has cost them football games. There is no other way to put it. And if you can’t trust Michael Badgley to kick a 50-yard field goal, he doesn’t belong on your roster.
The Lions passed on the opportunity to re-sign one of the more reliable kickers in football in Matt Prater. Yes, he was coming off a down year, but veterans like him tend to be pretty steady at that point in their career, and indeed, he’s been completely fine in Arizona.
This offseason, the Lions held a competition between Austin Seibert and Riley Patterson in training camp, and it was painfully obvious midway through camp that neither kicker was very trustworthy. Instead of doing anything about it, they just sat on their hands and waited to see who they could trust more. And while it may look like the Lions should have just kept Patterson instead, 1) he clearly did not beat out Seibert in camp, and 2) I simply don’t buy that he will be a reliable long-term kicker based on what I saw in camp, despite his strong 9-for-10 start to the year in Jacksonville.
Officially count me in as #TeamDraftAKicker.
5. Making Amani Oruwariye inactive was Campbell’s worst coaching decision Sunday. Sure, this feels like a little Monday Morning Quarterbacking, because who could’ve seen five defensive backs go down with injury against the Patriots? But I also find it hard to believe that the special teams play of someone like Chase Lucas (six special teams snaps) or Bobby Price were really that much more important than having an experienced backup ready to go in case of injury.
Campbell’s argument is that Oruwariye didn’t bring anything in terms of special teams, but my response is: so what? The truth of the matter is that special teams—outside of field goal kicking—is becoming a lesser and lesser part of the game. You could essentially take kickoffs completely out of the game by booting it through the end zone every time, and in the past two games combined, there has been a collective six total punts total. Take care of your defense before expending so much thought, energy and resources on your special teams.
6. Injuries are a legit excuse. No one wants to hear it, and everyone will say that “injuries happen” and “next man up,” but the truth of the matter is that health of a team is correlated to wins. This is well supported by data, and there are endless individual examples to illustrate that point (2021 Ravens, 2020 49ers, etc).
Last year, the Lions ranked 30th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost, which essentially means they suffered the third-most injuries of any team. This year, they’re well on their way to being a bottom-five team again:
The #Titans lead the NFL in contract value sitting on IR. #Jaguars the healthiest team so far. pic.twitter.com/qpiLbjqFk0— Jason_OTC (@Jason_OTC) September 28, 2022
When a team like the Lions, who has heavily invested in a young, inexperienced roster suffers injuries on top of that, it’s no real mystery why they’re struggling. They have had little opportunity to grow their depth, let alone their starting lineup.
Campbell refused to use injuries as an excuse, but he did admit on Monday he’s been surprised by how hard the Lions have been hit by them.
“Everybody has injuries, but I do know that they usually come in waves and I feel like we’ve been riding this wave for a year and a half and I didn’t anticipate that,” Campbell said.
As for why the Lions are being particularly hit hard with injuries, that’s anyone’s guess. The Lions simply need to overturn every stone. Look at how you practice, look at how you rehab, look at your strength and conditioning teams, look at how you approached training camp.
7. It’s okay to be disappointed with Aidan Hutchinson. It’s not okay to call him a bust. While Hutchinson was billed as maybe the most pro-ready edge defender in the class, there was also a majority of draft opinions that there wasn’t an elite-level talent at that position in the 2022 draft class. And look around. Hutchinson has five more pressures than any other rookie edge defender, per PFF.
That said, he needs to be better. He needs to finish his plays. The most disappointing part of Hutchinson’s start is that Campbell said he’s the type of player who doesn’t make the same mistake twice, but we’ve seen him consistently over-rush quarterbacks.
We’ve seen Hutchinson improve in the run game already this season, and we’re starting to see the Lions try to get him in better situations so that he isn’t always facing a double team or a chip block. Let’s see how that plays out before we start burying the front office for this one.
8. This season is hitting particularly hard because it’s easy to root for the people in charge. I like to think that I’ve done a better job in years past to not let this team emotionally dominate me on Sundays, but I have certainly regressed this year, and I think I know why. For one, this regime is extremely likable. Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes are good people and have all the leadership qualities you would want. And that trickles down to the rest of the coaching staff.
“Hard Knocks” has given us a closer look at many of these people in ways we have never seen in Detroit. How could you not fall in love with Duce Staley or Kelvin Sheppard or Aaron Glenn after watching “Hard Knocks.” So to see these guys not get it done is extra disappointing. We want them to succeed almost as much as we want the entire team to succeed.
And while we always fall into the trap of “this feels different,” there has been reason to believe that this was different. The Lions seemed to finally be forging their own path rather than trying to be a rip-off carbon copy of another franchise. Their heavy reliance on a coaching staff who has played before seemed like it made a ton of sense, and it certainly worked in forming a solid foundation.
But what we all may have overlooked is that this coaching staff is extremely young and inexperienced. Many of these guys are first-timers at their position, and it’s foolish to think they’d be elite out of the gate.
To go back to my first point, it’s far too early to give up on any of these guys, but that doesn’t make the hurt of the failures here any easier to digest.