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No longer underdogs, the Lions still have plenty to prove with Dan Campbell and Jared Goff leading the charge

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — TheΒ Detroit LionsΒ fully embraced the underdog mentality in 2021 after Dan Campbell’s infamous kneecaps press conference. They leaned on it when they didn’t get a win until Thanksgiving, and it was still a thing even as they turned the corner midway through the 2022 season.

Last year, finally, was the breakthrough. A 12-5 season. An NFC North title. Racking up more playoff victories in two weeks than the previous six decades combined.

The 2024 Lions can’t be the underdogs anymore, right?

“I don’t feel that we’re in this underdog…,” Campbell started to tell me last week at minicamp. “I think our guys know where we’re at. I would say this: the motivator is we still have things that we circle, too. We have our own shitlist. So we’re the team with the target on our back, but we’ve circled some people too now. We have targets, too.

“It’s not like we just ran through everybody last year and blew everybody out. We had losses and tough games. We have division opponents. We lost in the NFC Championship Game. So we’ve got our own targets man. And that’s the motivator.”

Things are the same, but different, with these Lions. They’ve dealt with the hype, and now they’re dealing with the expectations.

Campbell was the frontman for this band when he took over in 2021. Perhaps the (literal) strongest head coach in the NFL, Campbell was always the voice of the team internally and externally.

But the plan all along was to have the players lead this team. Amon-Ra St. Brown, Alim McNeill, Penei Sewell all had to grow up in the program. Veterans like Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker had to re-learn what it was like to win. Even the quarterback, Jared Goff, had to build back his confidence.

And Campbell saw last year that the paradigm had shifted. He wouldn’t need to speak up in a team meeting as much because one of the players already had.

“Until they take the reins, then it’s my job and the coaches’ job. Until they find their own voice and they lead this team, then myself and this coaching staff will lead this team,” Campbell said. “And the best teams are led by their leaders and by their teammates and peers. It’s not from the coaches. And that’s what’s happening, and it’s always been the vision.”

Goff is unquestionably the leader of this team. He inked a four-year, $212 million contract extension this offseason as proof-positive that he’s the guy for years to come in Detroit.

Except, he doesn’t allow himself to believe that. Not anymore.

In 2019, he had playoff success and then earned a top-of-market contract for his play from the Los Angeles Rams. Five years later, he did the same thing with the Lions.

So when I meet with him at minicamp, I assume that he feels different about this deal than the previous one.

“I do feel a lot different,” Goff tells me. “This was obviously much harder and had a much deeper meaning to the city and the fans. And I had to go through a lot personally to get to this point. That’s the main difference. I think the last three or four years have taught me that every single day is valuable.

“I feel like every day I have to prove myself, because at one point it was reality. Well… it is reality, but I feel that in my heart and I don’t think that’ll ever leave me. And I think maybe when I was in year 3 with a new contract I thought, ‘Oh I’m just the starter.’ And you don’t know any better sometimes. I feel like because of everything I’ve gone through, I feel like every single day I have to go out here and prove myself to myself and teammates and coaches that I’m the guy to lead them.”

Respectfully, I say to Goff that the reality to me and everyone else is that you are the guy. The $113.6 million in guaranteed money and a full no-trade clause doesn’t go to a backup. In what world will they trade you and consider this contract a mistake like the Rams did?

“But it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks,” Goff said. “My thought process has changed to that way and I think that’s the way to be. How long am I going to play football for? I don’t know. Hopefully a long time, but maybe one day I won’t be playing here and I hope to look back and say every single day I went out there and tried to prove myself. Whether it works or doesn’t, at least every single day I was never resting on my laurels. And I don’t believe I was and I don’t mean that to be the case. But I’m more aware of it now.

“I’m much more aware of actively proving myself every single day. And even though people may say, ‘Well you’ve proven it. You’re the starter and you’ve been the starter for eight years.’ I don’t see it that way. And I don’t know that I ever will. And that’s just the way I am.”

In the 34-31 NFC title game loss to the 49ers, the Lions were a third-quarter fumble, or a circus Brandon Aiyuk catch, or a different fourth-down decision away from meeting the Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII.

Afterward, Campbell said it will be “twice as hard” for the Lions to get back to the conference title game. He preaches today about how “it will take more” for this group to get over that hump.

“The more has got to be the focus on the details,” Campbell said. “One of the things I always felt we did a great job of and preach around here was handling pressure. When everything’s against you and your back’s against the wall and you don’t have timeouts and defense you’re pinned down in there, that’s when a lot of people crack. And we don’t crack. We find a way to get out of it. And that game, we did. We cracked. And that team did not. They came to life and found their momentum and that’s why they went where they went.

“That’s the little next step we have to get over. We have to be able to handle it at that level, even if it’s on the road against the top tier opponent. That’s the next level.”

The expectations within the building are the same, Goff told me. This time last year, the Lions expected to be in the Super Bowl just like they do today. Maybe the results were surprising to the rest of us, but not to them.

But there’s an even greater attention to detail, as Campbell noted. On the second day of minicamp, Campbell had his first and second teams go through seven separate end-of-game situations.

Down 34-28 with 15 seconds to go at the 16-yard-line, the Lions offense eventually got into the end zone on a Goff pass to St. Brown as time expired in the simulated drill. And that right there is the “more” that Campbell keeps talking about.

“That’s a perfect example,” Goff said. “Those standards and how we go about our business daily and ultimately on Sunday absolutely will rise for ourselves. But our expectations for what we can be are the same as they’ve always been.”

The Detroit Lions are both different and the same.

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Author: Jonathan Jones
June 10, 2024 | 4:10 pm

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