The Detroit Lions, led by head coach Dan Campbell, are headed to the NFC Championship game next weekend after a dramatic last-second victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This caps an incredible turnaround for a franchise that has suffered through years of losing and instability.
Long-Suffering Franchise Finally Turning the Corner
The Lions have largely served as the NFL’s lovable losers for decades. Prior to Campbell’s arrival, they had not won a playoff game since 1992 and regularly dwelled in the division basement. However, Campbell instilled a new attitude focused on toughness and accountability.
As the above table shows, the last decade was bleak for Lions fans. But Campbell’s kneecap-biting mentality has brought newfound belief and edge. The team defied expectations by making the postseason in just Campbell’s second year at the helm. Now they stand one win away from the second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
Campbell Preached Culture Change from Day One
Campbell’s fiery introductory press conference in January 2021 laid the foundation for the Lions’ turnaround. He spoke passionately about changing the losing culture in Detroit.
“We’re going to kick you in the teeth, all right? 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,” Campbell infamously declared.
Those words drew some laughs initially, but Campbell backed them up by fostering an environment of accountability, discipline, and trust in the locker room. Veterans like center Frank Ragnow raved about Campbell’s leadership style.
“He’s the best leader I’ve ever been around,” Ragnow stated after Detroit’s latest playoff victory.
Campbell empowered players to take ownership of the team. His transparency about expectations and unwavering support through early struggles established bonds that now have the Lions playing at their peak when it matters most.
Team Embodies Blue-Collar Spirit of Detroit
What has endeared Campbell most to the Motor City is the way his team embodies the hard-working ethos of Detroit. The Lions play with the type of grit, resilience, and solidarity with each other and the community that represents the soul of Detroit.
There were no quick fixes or rebuilds in Campbell’s first two seasons. Detroit posted identical 6-11 records the past two years. However, the growth in culture and player development laid the foundation for this year’s breakout.
“We endured body blows. But we got back up every time,” said quarterback Jared Goff about the early adversity under Campbell.
Just as Detroit as a city has fought back from economic instability and out-migration over the years, the Lions displayed similar perseverance and poise this season. Their steady improvement positioned them to capitalize when players reached their potential.
Deafening Crowd at Ford Field Reflects Civic Pride
The electric atmosphere at Ford Field during last weekend’s playoff victory highlighted the outpouring of civic support behind the Lions. Fans brought relentless energy from start to finish, just as the team feeds off the diehard people of Detroit.
“That crowd was different, it really was,” noted Campbell about the crowd’s impact against Tampa Bay.
Veteran NFL reporter Peter King echoed those sentiments in his popular “Football Morning in America” column.
“Detroit was magic,” King wrote.
With battered franchises like the Lions and Detroit Tigers showing new life lately, the city’s sports fans have reinvigorated faith. And the team continues motivating followers by embracing Detroit’s underdog mentality.
NFC Championship Berth Fuels Super Bowl Dreams
By becoming just the fifth Lions team ever to reach a conference championship game, anticipation for more history is swelling. Detroit opened as early underdogs on the road against the second-seeded San Francisco 49ers.
But conquering long odds is nothing new for these Lions in 2024. All they have done is defy external expectations and win tough games.
“We’re not here by accident,” said Goff about Detroit barging its way into the final four playoff teams.
Campbell set the vision for one day competing against the NFL’s elite. Few believed that day would come this soon, especially amidst unproven rookie defensive players and a midseason rash of injuries.
Yet the team’s maturity and trust in each other positioned them to shock the league. Campbell’s leadership and relationship with players laid the foundation. Now the Lombardi Trophy is suddenly within the Lions’ grasp.
Given the 49ers’ playoff experience and home-field advantage, the Lions still face long odds of actually winning the NFC. But back in 2021 when Campbell spoke about biting kneecaps, Detroit playing meaningful January football is all fans realistically wanted after so much suffering and waiting.
Campbell Transforms Team to Align with City’s Identity
Dan Campbell arrived in the Motor City with a vision to reshape the Lions’ identity. He focused less on schemes and talent than building connections within the locker room and throughout the organization. Campbell emphasized embracing the underdog, blue-collar mentality Detroiters identify with.
His transparent communication won over players despite early losses. However, the turnaround took root when the team adopted Campbell’s physicality and mental toughness. Players held each other accountable and improved through adversity. Consequently, the Lions slowly turned from league laughingstocks to embracing their status as “America’s Team” due to the national support behind their Cinderella story.
“We’re them. This team fits this city,” Campbell told reporters last week about Detroit finally having a team reflecting its ethos.
There is a sense the stars have aligned perfectly with the Lions and city peaking together right now. Two franchises left for dead are suddenly basking under bright spotlights. And the man at the center of Detroit’s football renaissance is Campbell.
His bold vision coupled with emphasizing connections with players and community cultivated the perfect roots for building a consistent winner. The process involved setbacks and outside doubts. But the Lions coach stayed true to his stated goal years ago:
“We’re going to kick you in the teeth. And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you.”
For now, Campbell and his Lions are still smiling, even if a few kneecaps are missing along the way.
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