By Greg Gielczyk
A lot of pro football observers and fans, including this writer, chuckled if not out-right laughed at Dan Campbell’s comments in his first press conference introducing him as the Detroit Lions new head coach last year.
Who could blame anyone for looking at Campbell with a good dose of skepticism as he spoke of biting kneecaps on the way up from being knocked down.
Then take the other kneecap while getting up if knocked down again.
Campbell, a tight end with the Lions from 2006-08 and a Super Bowl champion as a New York Giant in 2000, talked about the Lions taking on the identity of the city of Detroit, which he said has found a way to overcome adversity.
Those seemed like empty words at first glance, just more coach-speak, when you look at how the Lions finished the 2021 season, finishing 3-13-1 following a 5-11 campaign the previous year.
So, we wondered … was all the blue collar talk from Campbell just a lot of smoke and mirrors? Mouthing things he knew the fans wanted to hear?
It had been said so many countless times before, by so many others who came and went, and still the Lions continued to flounder.
More heads started shaking when the Lions traded quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams for a younger and more mobile, but still unproven, Jared Goff.
Stafford had been the Lions starting quarterback since 2008 and showed flashes of brilliance, but often tried to do too much himself and never led the team to the playoffs.
While the Lions continued to be mired in their losing ways last season, Stafford led the Rams to a Super Bowl victory, proving with the right personnel alongside him, he could succeed at the highest level and was a true leader.
But if we’d paid a little more attention, we might have seen the signs of a team on the way up when the Lions defeated two playoff bound teams, Arizona in Week 15 and Green Bay in Week 18 in Campbell’s first season as coach.
It looked like it would be more of the “same old Lions” when they started the season 1-6.
But, then they turned things around, finishing 8-2 in their final 10 games, and just barely missed the playoffs when the Seattle Seahawks defeated a Stafford-less Rams squad in overtime Sunday afternoon.
People wondered how the Lions players would react to the news, since they didn’t take the field in Green Bay for the season finale until 8:20 p.m. for ESPN’s Sunday Night Football. It was a rare prime time appearance before a national television audience.
With nothing but pride left to play for, how would the team respond?
The Lions answered all the questions emphatically, overcoming an early deficit and knocking off the Packers for the second time this season, to eliminate them from the post-season.
Aaron Rodgers final pass in perhaps his final game at Lambeau Field ended up floating almost aimlessly down the field until Kerby Joseph streaked across to intercept it.
Later, on the Lions’ final possession of the game and holding a 20-16 lead, Campbell showed his aggressive nature when he spurned a field goal attempt and went for it on fourth down … and the Lions converted.
It permitted them to run out the remaining time, as Goff took a knee three times in victory formation as they secured a 9-8 record.
These definitely are not the “same old Lions” we’ve grown accustomed to watching. Campbell has transformed them, with offensive coordinator Benjamin David Johnson, to create an exciting and innovative game plan that made the Lions actually exciting, with a quarterback and other offensive weapons to make it work.
The defense still needs some work but showed improvement as well.
Aidan Hutchinson, a rookie defensive end from Michigan, sacked Rodgers twice and should get some consideration for NFL Rookie of the Year.
The Lions have some impressive offensive weapons, too, all of whom came through big against the Packers. The Lions not only swept the two games this season, but have won three overall from their rival.
Goff finished the season with 4,438 passing yards and 29 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. Wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown caught 106 passes for 1,161 yards (an 11.0 average per catch) and six touchdowns.
Will Goff be back next year? The Lions will need to fork over $30 million to keep him in Honolulu blue and silver, but he proved this year he’s worth the money.
He threw 324 consecutive passes over the last nine games without an interception and flourished in Johnson’s offense.
Jamaal Williams rushed for 1,066 yards and 17 touchdowns, while D’Andre Swift added 542 yards with five touchdowns.
For the first time in decades, Lions fans are actually looking forward to next year with excited anticipation.