Skip to main content

Detroit Lions firmly in playoff race with Dan Campbell, Jared Goff helping to propel turnaround

DETROIT -- When a team struggles year after year, with the number of defeats being surpassed only by the level of frustration, its fans can be forced to entertain themselves during games. So perhaps supporters of the Detroit Lions should be forgiven for doing a wave that lasted more than five minutes on Sunday, while their offense was seeking to extend a lead over the Minnesota Vikings midway through the fourth quarter.

Truth is, Lions fans no longer need a wave because the days (and years) of heartache and disappointment could well be over.

If nothing else, Detroit’s 34-23 victory before 66,374 spectators at Ford Field seemed to be confirmation that these are not your father's Lions. Or your grandfather's Lions. Shockingly to everyone but themselves, they have won two in a row, five of six, and are firmly in the race for the NFC's seventh and final playoff spot despite being 6-7 overall.

"We're in this thing," coach Dan Campbell declared.

No one outside the organization envisioned such a possibility at the end of October, when, over a three-day stretch, the Lions left league observers shaking their heads. They lost to the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, fired defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant on Monday and traded tight end T.J. Hockenson, one of their best players, on Tuesday.

Safety DeShon Elliott, who signed with Detroit in the offseason after three years with the Baltimore Ravens, awoke that Tuesday morning to a cell-phone message from his family. Before reading the message, he had no idea about the trade. After listening to the message, he had no idea about the team's direction.

"The first thing I thought was, Damn, are we trying to tank?" he said. "But then we came in and had a team meeting, and Dan was like, 'That was just a business move. Things happen. It's the league.' All we knew was that we had us. It was us against the league."

You take your motivation where you can find it in the NFL, and since that whirlwind the Lions have been nearly unbeatable. They defeated the Packers, Bears and Giants, lost by three to the Bills, and beat the Jaguars and Vikings, who were seeking to clinch the NFC North title with a victory.

What changed? How did a team that started 0-10-1 last season and 1-6 this year -- a franchise coming off four consecutive last-place finishes and no division titles since 1993, and no playoff wins since 1991 -- turn things around? How did Detroit go from being the same ol' Lions to a club opponents can no longer circle on the schedule?

It began in January 2021 with the hiring of Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes, who believed any change on the field would have to be preceded by a change in culture. That meant finding physical, smart and dedicated players who would not be weighed down by the failures of the past. They would view playing for the Lions as an opportunity, not a curse.

"Brad and I put together a roster that we really believed in, guys who have had to overcome adversity," Campbell told me after Sunday's game. "They never got down. There are guys here from last year, when we only won three games, but we brought them here because they championed the cause. They were about what we were about. Then there are the coaches. They carried the message. They believe in what I believe in."

Second, they wanted a team that could play complementary football, which was missing to start this season. The offense was humming, for the most part, but the defense was hemorrhaging yards and points, particularly through the air. Communication issues and an inability to marry the rush with coverage repeatedly hurt them and caused a trust issue among some players, according to Campbell.

There were players who were unsure of their responsibilities, which caused other guys to try to pick up the slack. But trying to do more created even more problems.

"It snow-balled," said Campbell, who credits coordinator Aaron Glenn for helping to solve the problem. "We simplified things, we got their confidence back and we moved some people around."

One move was shifting cornerback Will Harris to nickel back, but more notable was the addition of several players coming off injuries, such as second-year cornerback Jerry Jacobs and rookie defensive lineman Josh Paschal, who missed the first five weeks due to hernia surgery and the two games prior to Sunday's with a knee injury.

Equally important was the maturation of other members of that talented rookie class, including defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson, who had a sack, two QB hits and a pair of tackles for loss on Sunday; linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, who had five tackles and a tackle for loss; safety Kerby Joseph, who had four tackles and a fumble recovery; and outside linebacker James Houston, who had a sack, QB hit and tackle for loss.

Entering Sunday, the Lions ranked second in interceptions (five) and tackles for loss (13) among this year's rookie classes, while also leading all others in sacks (10) and QB hits (21).

"I feel like our young guys are growing," said Campbell, "and the faster they grow, the better we've gotten."

And yet ...

There is no overstating how much the play of quarterback Jared Goff, a grizzled veteran in Year 7, has factored into the Lions' success. A former No. 1 overall pick who was acquired -- along with draft picks -- for Matthew Stafford in a trade prior to last season, he was viewed by some as a placeholder until the Lions eventually used a high draft pick to select a signal-caller of the future.

That thinking presumed Goff would fail to meet the challenge, which hasn't proven to be true.

Goff, who completed 27 of 39 passes for 330 yards and three touchdowns (with no turnovers) on Sunday, has been terrific for much of this season. But his game has gone to another level over the last seven contests because of improved ball security. He has thrown only one interception during that time, compared to 11 touchdowns.

No sequence better describes the confidence and conviction with which he's playing than a series of throws midway through the third quarter against the Vikings. The Lions were leading, 14-7, and after a successful fake punt gave them a first down at the Minnesota 47, Goff faced several long-yardage situations. He didn't blink.

Second-and-10? Twelve-yard completion.

Second-and-8? Sixteen-yard completion.

First-and-goal? Five-yard touchdown pass.

Each of the completions not only were darts, but also landed in the hands of a different receiver.

"It shows where our offense is at, being able to trust all of those guys," Goff told me. "The third-down play was to Kalif Raymond, who's really like our four or five receiver/punt returner. But we make him the primary and he runs really good routes and I have trust in him. It speaks to the confidence I have in those guys, and the swagger we're playing with."

Offensively, the Lions entered Sunday leading the league by scoring 30 points or more six times. They were ranked No. 6 in scoring and No. 1 in red-zone efficiency. And yet, early on this season, Goff was being dogged by turnovers. He threw at least one interception in five of Detroit's first six games, with two being returned for touchdowns. Was he trying to compensate for a struggling defense? Was he pressing to show the Lions did not get taken when they traded for him last year?

Whatever the reason, he has only the one interception the past seven games. And it's not inconceivable -- and likely is more probable than not -- that he will be more than simply a bridge for the Lions. His play could signal to leadership that he is the long-term answer at the position, which would allow the Lions to use draft capital on other positions.

"I feel as comfortable as I've ever felt, for sure," Goff said. "The confidence that I've built in these receivers in the last three or four weeks has grown so much. I trust them so much now and can throw things in tight windows, and they trust me to put the ball where needed. The line is playing great, too. It all works together."

With each victory, the Lions take another step from their dubious past. They have a fan base that is hungry for success and turning out in strong numbers despite the slow start. The same could not be said last season, when hope was as hard to come by as victories.

But a change in mindset has contributed to a change in fortune. Those close losses -- four of their first six defeats were by four points or fewer -- have now become comfortable wins; their last three victories were by 11, 26 and 13 points.

"Every game was so close, so close, so close, and the coaches would say, 'We're so close,' and honestly, that would piss me off inside," Elliott said. "It would make my blood boil because being close is not winning. Being close is still losing. We got to the point of realizing that being close means nothing. We can win, we can be victorious, we just have to believe in each other.

"It's about want to. Are we going to be mediocre or do we want to be great? Coming from some place where winning was expected, we finally started playing complementary football. We can be great if we take it one game at a time and don't worry about the outside world, don't worry about the buzz that we're getting. If we continue to play for our brothers, and play one game at a time, one play at a time, one drive at a time, we might mess around and make some noise this year."

Enough noise to drown out that of an untimely wave, perhaps.

Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter.

Related Content