DETROIT -- Detroit Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown was among the last players to walk out of the visitors’ locker room at Lambeau Field following the team’s regular season finale win over the Green Bay Packers. Before joining his teammates for the trip back to Detroit, he took some time to reflect on the franchise’s first winning season since 2017.
“Coming into last year, and shoot, my whole life, I knew Detroit wasn’t a good team. As a kid, when you’d watch football, I knew that if Detroit were playing, they probably were losing,” St. Brown, who was a senior in high school the last time the Lions had a winning record, told ESPN.
“That was the narrative that everyone had as a fan and when I got here last year with Coach [Dan] Campbell and everyone, I felt like they wanted to change that. Then, we finished 3-13-1 and it was almost the same old Lions again, but going into this year, we knew going into preseason and even into camp that this was a whole new team from last year. We had a bunch of different guys, with guys that were hungry, guys that could play ball who didn’t want what happened last year to happen this year.”
For years, the Lions franchise has been one of the laughingstocks of the NFL. With just a single playoff victory since 1957, the organization hasn’t given its fans much to cheer for since. But even after a 1-6 start to this season, Campbell believed the 2022 team could turn things around.
The second-year Lions coach helped guide the Lions (9-8) from that early hole to playoff contention, winning eight of their last 10 games and capping the campaign with the victory over the Packers in prime time. Although they didn’t reach the postseason, the future looks bright in Detroit. General manager Brad Holmes & Co. have built a solid foundation buoyed by a young and talented core, and this spring’s draft brings more opportunity to acquire more talent, with the Lions holding the No. 6 overall pick (from the Los Angeles Rams) and the No. 18 pick.
“Yeah, I mean it’s early. It’s early to get into all of that, but certainly, I do think it can catapult you if you allow it to,” Campbell said of the Lions' strong finish to the season. “If we just say it, and say the words, and don’t put in the work that we did last year with the growth that has taken place, and then we’ll be average. But I believe in the team. I believe in the chemistry, the identity of this team, and the work they put in, and so I really do believe we’re only going to grow and get better, and as that [is] happening, we’re going to add more pieces too.”
The sudden turnaround that took place in 2022 changed the Lions’ outlook heading into next season. These were the most important moments.
Oct. 26: Ford Hamp backs Campbell, GM
Detroit dropped to 1-5 after a 24-6 loss at the Dallas Cowboys in Week 6. Running back Jamaal Williams' fumble on the goal line in the fourth quarter with the Lions trailing 10-6 was one of five turnovers the Lions committed in the second half. Quarterback Jared Goff was responsible for the other four.
Frustrations were running high after the defeat. It also didn’t help the team’s morale when a video surfaced of Campbell throwing his headset after Williams' fumble. Campbell later said he was upset with his staff about a review issue.
Critics began questioning the leadership of the new regime following the clumsy performance. But Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp addressed the media in an impromptu session at the Allen Park practice facility three days later, admitting she was frustrated with the team's four-game losing streak but continued to maintain faith that Campbell and general manager Brad Holmes were the right people to lead the franchise going forward.
"I believe in the leadership," Ford Hamp said.
Campbell wasn’t surprised by her backing, but also wasn’t satisfied with the disappointing start.
“I know that we have her support. But I don’t take that for granted,” Campbell said. “I don’t take it lightly either, I know that that’s not easy. It’s not easy at all. It’s not easy on anybody. But certainly, I appreciate it.”
Oct. 31-Nov. 1: Pleasant firing and Hockenson trade
Campbell woke up on Halloween morning with a difficult decision to make. After losing a fifth consecutive game to fall to 1-6, he knew the team needed shake-up. In a 31-27 loss to the Miami Dolphins, receivers Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill torched the Lions secondary for a combined 294 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 20 receptions.
Sources in the locker room said players respected defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant for his infectious personality and his ability to relate with members of the team. But, defensively, the team was allowing a league-worst 32.1 points per game and the secondary was a major issue.
So, the day after the Miami loss, Campbell fired Pleasant.
“I wouldn’t say confused, but mixed emotions,” Lions cornerback Jeff Okudah told ESPN after the move was announced.
Pleasant was credited with the development and renewed confidence of Okudah, the former No. 3 overall pick in 2020, after returning from a season-ending Achilles injury.
“On one end, I feel like I’ve been playing pretty well, but my coach gets fired so I’ve got to ask myself, ‘What could I have done better to help that man keep his job?’” Okudah said. “I think his impact on my career has been invaluable. Things he was able to teach throughout the game, the Xs and Os, he really slowed the game down for me so to have him come in and slow the game down for me and make it that much more simple it paid tremendous dividends.”
“We’re still in the build phase,” Holmes said, explaining the deal. “So, I mean, with the capital that we received back from the compensation standpoint, I just think it made a lot of sense for us to continue on this build.”
Campbell viewed the trade as a “business decision” and an opportunity to put more “food on the table” for other skill players on offense, notably tight ends Brock Wright, Shane Zylstra and James Mitchell who all stepped up in Hockenson's absence.
The Lions would end with 12 passing touchdowns to tight ends on the season -- the most this century for the franchise. Wright, Zylstra and Mitchell accounted for nine of those touchdowns, proving that the offense could operate at a high level in both the short and long-term without a player of Hockenson’s caliber.
Nov. 3: Players-only meeting; picking off the Packers
Four days after firing Pleasant and trading Hockenson, the players knew they needed a shake-up internally.
On the Thursday before their first game against division rival Green Bay, members of the Lions defense -- led by veteran defensive tackle Michael Brockers -- held a players-only meeting at the Allen Park practice facility.
In what sources among the team described as a safe space, teammates were able to get things off their chest in an hour-long, honest discussion about expectations and coming together as a team.
“More than anything, I feel like every team needs that transparent, tough love on each other. A lot of guys were able to speak up, like ‘this is how I feel, this is my vision’ and collectively this is our vision moving forward,” Lions cornerback Will Harris told ESPN. “The coaches got their hands full with the game plan and stuff so we’ve gotta have our chemistry right as players so that’s pretty much what that meeting was about was us solidifying that chemistry within us of how we see ourselves and how we’re trying to change the narrative moving forward.”
The defense went on to play its best game of the season in a 15-9 victory over the Packers at Ford Field. The unit made the game difficult for Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers who threw two of his three interceptions on the day in the red zone -- the first time in his career he'd done so.
For Detroit, it was their second win of the season – snapping the NFL’s longest active losing streak (5) at the time -- and was the catalyst for their strong finish. The Lions would go on to win seven of their final nine games.
For his unit's efforts, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was awarded the game ball during the post-game celebration in the locker room.
“It was shocking to be honest with you, and I guess shocking because for a defensive coordinator to get a game ball, I was very appreciative, but I’ll tell you what, I was really more appreciative of the players than anything else because it shows the belief that they have, and not only me, but us as a defensive staff,” Glenn said. “But man, all the credit goes to those guys.”
Nov. 24: Unleashing 'Da Problem' on Thanksgiving Day
Rookie linebacker James Houston was elevated from the practice squad to the active list just one day ahead of the Lions' Thanksgiving day game against the Buffalo Bills. It was also his mother's birthday.
The following day, Houston, nicknamed “Da Problem,” became the first player with two sacks in his NFL debut since 2017, joining Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt. He also became the first player in Lions history to produce a multi-sack performance in his first career game.
“I think I did that for her,” Houston said after the game, dedicating the game to his mother, Sonja.
Though the Lions lost 28-25, the performance by the Jackson State product earned him an active roster spot for the remainder of the season. In return, the Lions staff found a hidden gem in the former sixth-round pick.
Houston finished the season with 8.0 sacks in just seven games, which tied him for the third-most by a Lions rookie despite not playing less than half the season. Paired with Hutchinson’s 9.5 sacks, the pair became the first rookie duo in league history to have eight or more sacks apiece in a single season for the same team since the stat became official in 1982.
“The GM [Brad Holmes] had really came up to me right after the game and told me what the plan was going to be. He was saying, ’30 other teams were probably going to be calling about me,’” Houston told ESPN. “I was upset we lost, but I was happy with my performance.”
Jan. 8: A giant leap at Lambeau
Lambeau Field. Sunday night. On national TV.
Hutchinson, St. Brown and running back D'Andre Swift all agreed Detroit was treating the regular season finale against Green Bay like a playoff game, whether the Lions had a chance to qualify for the postseason or not.
Heading into the day, the Lions needed a victory over the Packers and a Seattle Seahawks loss to the Rams to secure a playoff spot for the first time since 2016. The Lions' postseason hopes, however, were dashed after Seattle defeated the Los Angeles Chargers in overtime just before kickoff in Green Bay. But that didn’t stop them from spoiling the Pack's playoff aspirations in front of a national audience, and experiencing their first winning season in five years.
“We found out pre-game warmup, we’re coming off and I’m telling you, we were unfazed,” Campbell said of learning the Seahawks-Rams result. “We knew what we were coming in here for and it was to gain some respect and show what we’re capable of no matter what happened, and we knew the only way to do that was to win. So, our guys were locked in and they were unaffected by that. They knew what the objective was.”
In the 20-16 win, Williams, a former Packer, scored two touchdowns to set a new franchise mark with 17 rushing TDs in a single season, passing Hall of Famer Barry Sanders' previous mark set in 1991. He also finished as the NFL leader in rushing touchdowns and eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the first time in his career.
Despite missing the playoffs, the Lions viewed the win at Green Bay as a springboard for the future.
“It shows how much potential and how much greatness we have in us for next year,” Williams said. “We wish we could keep going off of this great game that we had, but we’ve got to get ready for next year.”
The bar is set. pic.twitter.com/lOS5I5mKAn— Detroit Lions (@Lions) January 13, 2023
Goff goes off
Goff likely secured his future in Detroit with the win at Lambeau. After a 3-13-1 season in his first year with the team, the former No. 1 overall pick returned to lead the Lions to a winning season in Year 2. In the process, he threw a career-best 324 straight passes without an interception, which was the fifth-longest streak in NFL history.
“I’ve been on the wrong side of a lot of those, so it seems like it’s balancing out now,” Goff said. “It’s been a good little streak.”
Goff is signed through 2024, but the Lions would incur $10 million of dead money on their cap if they release him after this season, meaning they could do so without much financial consequence if they wanted to go in another direction. On locker clean-out day, Goff spoke of his affection for the Lions and how much he wanted to return as the starting quarterback.
“I’ve loved my time here. I’ve loved Dan [Campbell] and loved the players and coaches,” Goff said. “I can’t speak higher of this group and these coaches. I love leading this team. I love being a part of it.”
Upon acquiring him in the Jan. 2021 trade that sent longtime Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Rams, many viewed Goff as a bridge quarterback. But Holmes said after this season that wasn’t the case, adding that Goff has proven the Lions can win with him leading the offense.
"I think it's a lot easier to get worse at quarterback than to get better in this league," Holmes said during his end-of-season news conference. "So, I think what Jared has done this year, he captained the ship of a top-3 offense, and he was top-10 statistically in most of the passing categories.
"And again, you know how we approach the draft," Holmes added. "We're never going to turn down a good football player, so if it's a football player we love, we're going to make sure every stone is turned. But I do think that Jared has proven to everybody that he is the starting quarterback for us."