Before the start of the 2021 season, I wrote a column about the Dan Campbell experiment getting under way. There were a few different things that I was looking to see out of Campbell in Year 1. Could he build a culture? Could he help struggling players play better? Could he handle the pressure of the scrutiny that the fans and the media would bring? It seems fair enough to say that those questions got answered favorably.
In Year 2 there are a whole new set of expectations and questions Campbell will have to answer. Every year, the goalposts move. Here are the top four things that would be nice to see in year two of the Dan Campbell experiment.
Win the little games
There are only 17 games in a season. It’s hard to really call any of them little. They all mean something. What I mean by this is that the Lions need to go out and beat the teams that they should beat. If the Lions are playing a one-win team, they should beat them.
The Lions have notoriously failed in these trap games in the past. How many times can you remember the Lions losing to the team with a backup quarterback or a rookie quarterback? Drew Stanton in 2014 ring a bell? Good teams take care of business against teams they outmatch. Detroit may not “outmatch” a ton of teams right now, but with a relatively easy schedule (see: Bears twice), the Lions undoubtedly have games they should win. If they have a chance to beat the “three toes and one ass cheek” team, they need to do it.
Win the big games
Why not just win all the games, am I right? In all seriousness, If the Lions want to be competitive in 2022, they have to try to knock off some teams that they are less likely to beat on paper. It’s time for some signature wins. The Lions were able to arguably get two of them in Year 1. Now it’s time to do that in stride.
The Thanksgiving Day game against the Buffalo Bills is the big one. It’s going to be a very tough game, and there’s a chance the Lions could get blown out by a team that is very much in the Super Bowl conversation, but if Dan Campbell can coach the Lions to win in this game, there should probably be a statue of him next to the Robocop statue. Better yet, there should be a statue of him standing on the head of the Spirit of Detroit statue.
Don’t get lost out there
The end of the Lions vs. Bears Thanksgiving game in 2021 is a good example of getting lost out there. There are these moments when coaches—especially newer ones—get lost in the moment and the team falters because of it. Jim Schwartz did it with the challenge flag, Jim Caldwell did it on the Aaron Rodgers Hail Mary and Matt Patricia did it pretty much every week. It happens. It’s that crunch time where every coaching decision is critical, and not everyone is up for the pressure.
The time for shooting yourself in the foot in Detroit has to end. Mistakes happen, but the Lions coaching staff needs to clean up as much of them as they can to make sure that those mistakes don’t lead to embarrassing losses.
I’m putting it on this year’s list, too. It’ll probably be on next year’s list as well, and the one after that. The progress that would be most nice to see is development of young players on the team who aren’t already expected to be big parts of the team. Don’t get me wrong. Progression for guys like Aidan Hutchinson and Amon-Ra St. Brown is definitely welcome. Creating new stars is has a bigger appeal though.
Guys like Jerry Jacobs, Malcolm Rodriguez and Demetrius Taylor is what I’m talking about. Taking guys that are undrafted or day three guys and making them starters is a quality that not every team has. It’s definitely a quality the Lions haven’t had in the past. Good teams hit on their early-round picks. Great teams find hidden gems on Day 3 and beyond. And the more young players the Lions can find, the better they’ll be in both the short-term and long-term. There is no better way to create a foundationally strong franchise than to hit and develop young talent.