How Dan Campbell’s Lions went from laughingstock to contender in three years

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If an NFL owner is looking for a blueprint to spark a dramatic turnaround, he or she should closely study the work of Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell. The Detroit Lions have risen to prominence under the direction of a general manager and head coach working in lockstep to assemble a young roster featuring a collection of blue-chip talents with blue-collar mentalities.

While the football world snickered at Campbell’s vision at his introductory press conference in 2021, when he went on about his team kicking in teeth and taking out kneecaps, the Lions have built a team that reflects the grittiness and toughness touted by its leader.

From the quarterback who entered the league as a No. 1 overall pick but was dismissed by his former squad despite leading the team to a Super Bowl appearance, to the All-Pro pass-catcher who did not come off the board until the 112th pick of the 2021 draft, to a playmaking safety dismissed from a Super Bowl contender, the Lions have taken a collection of castoffs and misfits and transformed it into a title contender in three seasons.

Though team-builders routinely tout “draft and develop” strategies at the podium, few have been able to follow through on a plan that requires the front office and coaching staff to work together to identify and train young players for prominent roles correctly.

In Detroit, the Lions have aggressively targeted players who fit their system while ignoring the critiques of draft analysts and casual observers who disagreed. As Jahmyr Gibbs, Jack Campbell, and Sam LaPorta shine in their roles, the Lions’ belief in their system and pre-draft process have paid dividends, with the trio and others shining as young standouts on an emerging NFC heavyweight.

Looking at Detroit’s recent draft classes, there are few misses in the bunch. The team has acquired blue-chip players at each of the marquee positions, with Aidan Hutchinson (pass rusher), Penei Sewell (pass protector), Jameson Williams (playmaker) and Brian Branch (playmaker) joining Amon-Ra St. Brown, Gibbs, Campbell and LaPorta as core players. That does not even include the contributions of Alim McNeill, Ifeatu Melifonwu, Kerby Joseph and Derrick Barnes, who are key defensive contributors making their mark early in their careers.

With so many homegrown players thriving as youngsters, the Lions have been able to supplement the roster with savvy veterans with winning pedigrees. Jared Goff is the perfect example of a former Pro Bowler with Super Bowl experience. Despite being tossed aside by the Los Angeles Rams after failing to meet Sean McVay’s lofty expectations, the veteran has found a home in Motown due to Holmes and Campbell’s belief in his talents and leadership skills. Holmes, who was a member of the Rams’ personnel department when they traded up to draft the former Cal standout with the No. 1 overall pick, believed in Goff’s potential from the start.

Holmes’ loyalty has been rewarded as Goff has played at an All-Pro level under offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s direction. The chemistry between the passer and playcaller has made the Lions offense nearly impossible to defend with a quick-rhythm QB tossing darts to a collection of pass-catchers with exceptional route-running skills and catch-and-run talent. As a result, the Lions are one of the few teams that can play with force (run) or finesse (pass) based on the opponent or situation.

Why Dan Campbell stood out in Detroit’s divisional win over Bucs

Why Dan Campbell stood out in Detroit's divisional win over Bucs

Given the importance and impact of the quarterback, the Lions’ decision to take on a reclamation project as part of the Matthew Stafford trade has helped jumpstart the franchise without working through the growing pains typically associated with bringing in a new QB1 via the draft.

Moreover, installing a veteran quarterback with experience to orchestrate a dramatic turnaround has helped the Lions avoid some of the missteps young teams make on their way to the top. The team also signed veteran defensive backs Cameron Sutton and C.J. Gardner-Johnson to provide leadership for a squad looking to take the next step.

And with Campbell assembling a staff loaded with former NFL players — Aaron Glenn, Hank Fraley, Mark Brunell, Antwaan Randle-El, Dre Bly J.T. Barrett, Shaun Dion Hamilton and Kelvin Sheppard — the Lions have coaches who have walked the walk between the lines. That experience fosters a connection between coaches and players, leading to more trust when receiving information and instruction. 

Considering how well Detroit’s young players are performing, the Lions might have unlocked a key element in the player development equation with former players installed as teachers.

As the Lions take on the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game (6:30 p.m. ET Sunday on FOX and the FOX Sports app), the rest of the league should pay close attention to the methods utilized by Campbell & Co. to reverse the fortunes of a downtrodden franchise. Although every circumstance differs, Detroit’s success should prompt team-builders to use similar tactics to construct title contenders in a new era.

Bucky Brooks is an NFL analyst for FOX Sports. He also breaks down the game for NFL Network and as a cohost of the “Moving the Sticks” podcast. Follow him on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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