HomeFootball DirtDetroit's Resurgence Proves Dan Campbell's Promise Right

Detroit’s Resurgence Proves Dan Campbell’s Promise Right

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From the jump, Dan Campbell was the perfect coach for the Detroit Lions.

A relative unknown himself on Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints coaching staff, Campbell instilled a no-nonsense approach during his rebuild of one of the NFL’s biggest punchlines. Because that’s what the once-fledgling Lions needed. Stability. Culture. A deep appreciation for one another. Where the easy move would’ve been to hire a Sean McVay, Kyle Shanahan, Matt LaFleur, or Mike McDaniel cloned offensive mastermind, the Lions went with Campbell — the earnest, blue-collar player’s coach who knows how to lead, who knows how to instill love.

The difference is palpable.

When Campbell promised Detroit the world, many scoffed. Three years later, the Lions are on the doorstep of their first-ever Super Bowl appearance. Because Campbell delivered, a once-downtrodden franchise is no longer a joke.

Everyone should’ve known who these Lions would be the first time Campbell stood in front of one of their microphones. Instead of laughing or turning it into a viral sensation, they should’ve paid attention when he gave us the blueprint. Because he wasn’t joking. Who the Lions would become — a tough-nosed Super Bowl contender, the best Lions team in decades — was never a secret.

You just had to listen to a true leader:

“We’re going to kick you in the teeth, all right?” Campbell told reporters. “And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you. And when you knock us down, we’re going to get up and on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off, all right? And then we’re going to stand up. And then it’s going to take us two more shots to knock us down. And on the way up, we’re going to take your other kneecap. … Before long, we’re going to be the last one standing.”

There are no lies in that statement. Not one. Every single sentiment Campbell promised came true.

As constituted, the Lions are bullies. They do kick everyone in the teeth, and they grin from ear to ear when anyone takes exception.

Only four teams, including Detroit’s NFC title game opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, had more team rushing yards this season. Only seven averaged more rushing first downs per game than Detroit and its monstrous offensive front. On the flip side, no one had more quarterback knockdowns (72) than a defense led by born-and-bred Michigan man Aidan Hutchinson. A single team allowed fewer rushing yards than the Lions, who control the line of scrimmage as if they’re playing the most spirited game of Red Rover.  No one has more quarterback pressures, ensuring no signal-caller ever sits in the pocket with comfort when the NFL’s de facto king of the jungle is on the prowl.

If an opponent does manage to stagger the Lions, perhaps even accidentally injure them, they’ll just … play through it. All-Pro center Frank Ragnow, battling a weak knee and ailing ankle during Sunday’s wild-card win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is a picture-perfect example of a genuine warrior who would rather fight for his teammates than miss a single snap because he’s less than 100 percent physically. Should the Lions stay on the ropes for a moment longer than expected, they rise up with gusto. Only two teams averaged more fourth-quarter points than Campbell’s Lions this year. Only a handful were more productive in the second half, the crunch time when a gritty team understands how to put the pedal to the metal and separate itself from an opponent all out of gas.

The Lions do not play passively. They are always on the attack, trying to instigate, to make their presence known. When push comes to shove, the Lions are doing the shoving without question. This team is unafraid of “biting kneecaps,” leaving a lasting imprint and selling out entirely in every game it plays.

Why, it’s almost as if the Lions are following Campbell’s example to a tee.

Before Campbell took the helm of the Lions, they were a laughingstock. No one took this bottom-feeding franchise seriously. They were a consistent content mill for social media platforms about how not to build a winning football program. With 20 losing seasons in the last three decades, they didn’t deserve respect from anyone, perhaps not even their own tortured fans. They were the “Loins” through and through, living up to a widespread intentionally butchered version of their nickname.

No one laughs at the Lions anymore, especially after winning their first division title since 1991. No one overlooks the Lions anymore, particularly after notching not one but two playoff wins this month — incredible postseason success Detroit has not matched since its 1957 NFL title. No one characterizes the Lions as an afterthought. Between reclamation project Jared Goff, a spicy Amon-Ra St. Brown, and vibrant hometown guys like Hutchinson, the Lions are teeming with personality and vigor. They’re a genuine marquee team, a must-watch, a once-dormant selling point for the sport of professional football.

If it feels like everything has come up Lions lately, that’s because it probably has. There was never a guarantee that Campbell would transform Detroit into a powerhouse. The many, many failed rebuilds of the Lions’ past suggested as much. But Campbell was different. He was the right person for the most ambitious and daunting turnaround in the NFL at the right time.

Campbell’s Lions are no longer on the way up. They’re not going to catch anyone off guard anymore. They’ve lost the ability to sell themselves as plucky upstarts trying to prove they belong. Regardless of what happens during this Sunday’s title game, they have arrived.

And since every other Campbell promise came true, it’s only a matter of time before they’re the last team standing.

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