Dan Campbell is practically a caricature of a football coach.
The Detroit Lions’ leader carries himself like a cross between a drill sergeant and a big-game hunter. His remarks in news conferences are peppered with tough-guy clichés and Scotch-and-cigar one-liners. It often sounds like he’s punching you in the arm while he speaks. Campbell is the sort of man who seems to have been born with a whistle around his neck.
When Campbell’s Lions went 3-13-1 in his first season as their head coach in 2021, then started his second 1-6, there appeared to be little substance behind the swagger. Since November, however, the Lions have looked like a potential powerhouse built in Campbell’s camo-chic image.
The Lions have won five of their past six games. They defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 34-23, on Sunday; the game did not qualify as an upset because the oddsmakers declared the Lions favorites even though they entered the meeting with a 5-7 record and the Vikings were 10-2. The Lions’ only loss since October was a 28-25 Thanksgiving heartbreaker to the Buffalo Bills, a team on the short list of Super Bowl favorites.
The Lions’ sudden improvement does not look like a lucky hot streak. They are beating competitive opponents convincingly, and they are doing so without big-name superstars, thanks in large part to the Campbell regime’s nouveau spin on traditional gravel-chomping strategies.
The Lions field one of the best offensive lines in football, led by tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell and center Frank Ragnow. They have helped Jamaal Williams and the rest of the running back group combine for 19 rushing touchdowns. The line pulls, traps and uses other blocking tactics that had fallen out of style in the N.F.L. but would make Knute Rockne shed tears of pride.
The sturdy line and dependable running game have reinvigorated oft-maligned quarterback Jared Goff, who arrived before the 2021 season as little more than an offloaded contract in the blockbuster trade that sent longtime starter Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams.
Goff is like a movie vampire: compelling to watch and dangerously effectual, except when exposed to sunlight. In other words, Goff thrives in ideal conditions but crumbles to dust otherwise.
The Lions are providing ideal conditions. As a result, Goff is tied for fifth in the N.F.L. in passing touchdowns (22) and ranks eighth in passing yards (3,352) and seventh in passer rating (97.9) while throwing to an unheralded receiving corps led by Amon-Ra St. Brown (tied for fifth in the league with 82 receptions).
The Lions’ defense, which includes rookie starters Aidan Hutchinson, Malcolm Rodriguez and Kerby Joseph, is not yet on par with the offense but has improved throughout the season. The Lions have allowed just 20.3 points per game in their past six games after allowing 32.1 points per game in their first seven.
The success of the Lions’ retro-smashmouth offense and the gradual development of their youthful defense reveal that there is more to Campbell’s coaching style than “Braveheart” speeches. Campbell is a delegator who gives coordinators Ben Johnson (offense) and Aaron Glenn (defense) plenty of autonomy. The Lions’ staff has shown patience with rookies and slow-developing prospects while quickly giving major roles to middle- or late-round draft surprises like St. Brown (in 2021) and Rodriguez.
Furthermore, while many tough-guy coaches try to act like Wild West gamblers, Campbell is actually willing to raise the stakes. The Lions have attempted 28 fourth-down conversions this year, the third-highest total in the N.F.L. The Lions have also executed seven fake punts in the past two seasons, including a run by C.J. Moore that netted 42 yards against the Vikings. Opponents can never let their guard down against Campbell’s high rollers.
Nothing typifies the Lions’ rugged, unpredictable style of play more than Sewell’s leaping, 9-yard reception to net a crucial fourth-quarter first down that kept alive the Lions’ final clock-eating field-goal drive. Offensive tackles who weigh 335 pounds aren’t supposed to catch passes; in most circumstances, offensive tackles are not permitted to catch passes at all.
Watching Sewell’s catch was like watching a flaming motorcycle jump over a school bus. The Lions have become the league’s coolest scoundrels and its most balletic cave men.
The Lions’ late-season success will probably not be enough to vault them into the playoffs: The Times’ playoff predictor gives them a 14 percent chance of reaching the postseason, while some oddsmakers offer a +300 moneyline. The Lions may be forced to settle for a role as pesky, entertaining spoilers: just the sort of team the Jets do not want to face with their playoff hopes on the line in Week 15.
Still, it’s remarkable that the Lions are in the playoff picture at all after their feeble start, and their future beyond the 2022 season is suddenly bright.
The core of the Lions’ roster is very young. Rookies like receiver Jameson Williams, recently recovered from an anterior cruciate ligament injury suffered in last year’s college football championship game, and sixth-round edge rusher James Houston IV are just starting to make an impact. The team possesses an extra first-round pick in the 2023 draft thanks to the Stafford trade, as well as a second pick in the second round.
The Lions, who have won just one playoff game in the past 65 seasons, may finally be slow-building something special.
Until that happens, Campbell gives the historically hapless, often-faceless Lions some personality. It’s the personality of a man who uses antlers in all of his decorating, but the N.F.L. recognizes and respects that sort of fellow, and Campbell is proving that he can back up his bluster.