ALLEN PARK, Mich. — That the Detroit Lions made it as far as they did this season, falling just short of the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance, was no accident. It wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t luck. It wasn’t a one-and-done trip.
At least, that’s what Lions general manager Brad Holmes wants to make clear.
He believes his team is here for the long run, which he made abundantly clear to anyone listening to his end-of-season news conference Monday.
“This is what I want to tell, really, our fans is: Look, it’s only going to get better, OK?” Holmes said. “We’re only going to get better. I don’t want anybody to think that this was a one-shot, Cinderella, magical journey that just happened. No, it’s real. This is exactly what was supposed to happen. And I understand that based on history from what’s happened in the past, I understand you have a season like this, it’s easy to feel like this was kind of a one-shot, magical, lucky, cute story — which I’m tired of hearing. It was none of that. It’s easy to think that, but no.”
Holmes was impassioned and unapologetic Monday — about the NFL Draft, about the trade deadline, about any of the moves that helped the Lions get to where they are. He spoke for roughly 40 minutes (the first 11 without interruption as part of his opening statement), talking about the 2023 season and his Lions tenure at large.
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His main message: The Lions are just getting started. He feels this past year, and how the Lions have built their foundation, gives them a chance to be right back here competing for a Super Bowl.
Those were the topics that emerged Monday, among many. Let’s discuss.
On Dan Campbell and the 2023 season
One of Holmes’ first comments was about Campbell and his staff and the job they did throughout the 2023 season.
The Lions tied a franchise record for wins in a season (12), won the NFC North for the first time and captured their first division title in 30 years. They won their first playoff game in 32 years and had more playoff wins (2) than in the previous 64 years combined (1).
“That’s a special group,” Holmes said. “Special group in that locker room, and much appreciation for them. I thought Dan did a phenomenal job of preparing the team every week, week in and week out. I thought he did a phenomenal job navigating adversity when it did arise. … From an identity standpoint, I do think that our opponents knew who they were getting ready to play when they were ready to face us each week. And I think the world of Dan. He’s a special leader, special coach, and he’s those things because he’s a special human being.”
The Lions cementing their identity should not go unnoticed. It took some time, of course. We saw it in flashes through the first year and a half of this regime — the second half of the 2022 season was the first sustained look at it. But you had to see it carry over into a year with meaningful expectations. That happened this season.
Detroit proved to be a difficult out, in the regular season and the postseason. It’s hard to view the 2023 season as anything other than a success.
Even so, Holmes wasn’t satisfied with how things ended in San Francisco. That’s understandable, considering the way the Lions lost and how close they were to the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance.
“Look, that was a disappointment that we didn’t make it,” Holmes said. “And again, that wasn’t a ‘Man, we got lucky.’ No, that’s what we expected. And (we) fell short but still accomplished a lot. But we’ll improve in every area.”
Now that the Lions have proved they belong, the focus shifts to getting back — and getting over the hump.
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The draft is what Holmes does best. He’s a former scout who worked his way up the ranks with the Los Angeles Rams, ultimately ascending to director of college scouting before the Lions hired him. He has said all along he wants to build the foundation of this roster through the draft.
Monday offered a chance to flex some of the decisions he’s made, starting with the 2021 draft.
“Everyone can’t play for the Detroit Lions, and that’s just a reality,” Holmes said. “That’s just a standard that has been set. And look, I’ll go back to the 2021 draft. The ’21 draft, each pick from that draft was very intentional. And the reason why I go back to that draft — couple reasons.
“For one, it was 2021. We just finished the 2023 season, so that’s when you’re supposed to grade a draft. Not the day after a draft. But when you look back at those picks — and those picks were not welcome by many in this room. You wanted us to pick a quarterback. You didn’t want us to pick Penei Sewell. People didn’t want us to wait until the fourth round to draft a wide receiver. People didn’t want to wait on Derrick Barnes to develop, but every single move was intentional and was made with intention.”
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) February 4, 2024
This was the energy Holmes brought Monday, and it’s hard to fault him. That ’21 draft netted him an All-Pro, franchise tackle in Sewell — not a flashy pick, but a foundational one. It landed him an All-Pro wide receiver, Amon-Ra St. Brown, in the fourth round. Third-round pick Alim McNeill was having a Pro Bowl-caliber 2023 season, had it not been for a late injury. Others such as Barnes and Ifeatu Melifonwu broke through in their third seasons; hence, Holmes’ reminder that you can’t accurately judge a draft a day after it’s complete.
Perhaps more than 2021, though, Holmes took plenty of heat for his 2023 draft. The players targeted, the positions they played, it all was under a microscope in April. In the end, Holmes drafted two rookie Pro Bowlers (Jahmyr Gibbs and Sam LaPorta) and two other starters (Jack Campbell and Brian Branch) with his first four picks. Each player directly contributed to one of the best seasons in Lions history.
“We’re always picking football players,” Holmes said. “It’s just that when we pick football players high, you all have bashed us. But we’ll still continue to pick football players and the guys that are for us. So, really, it doesn’t change. … We’ll just still keep sticking to our plan and go as normal. I think it’s proven that it’s worked so far for us.”
Just as around this time a year ago, when he said he never viewed his QB as a “bridge” option, Holmes reaffirmed his belief in Goff before an all-important offseason for the sides.
“When he came to us, I always had belief,” Holmes said. “So, him doing what he did this past year or even the year before, it’s not a surprise to us. I just know how he’s wired. I know the talent he has, I know the leadership he has, I know his mental and physical toughness. … So, just happy (with) what he’s done, and just couldn’t be more proud of everything he’s achieved.”
Holmes and the Lions have a chance to take it a step further, beyond public words of support, because Goff is up for a contract extension. He has a year remaining on his current deal, which puts him within the typical window for when teams try to get things done. The clock is ticking.
Brad Holmes on Jared Goff pic.twitter.com/VSEOC7NbRe
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) February 5, 2024
It’s hard to envision a scenario in which the Lions don’t financially commit to Goff, whether that’s now or soon. He’s a better, more mature quarterback than he was in Los Angeles. He has proved capable of leading the team to playoff wins. The current offensive personnel fits what he does best.
They have a good thing going.
For what it’s worth, Goff’s agent, Ryan Tollner, told The Athletic’s Kalyn Kahler that he’s confident the Lions will extend Goff early this offseason.
“They said all the right things to Jared and to me, that (this season) is not about him having to prove himself for another year,” Tollner said in December. “Inevitably, players always feel that way. If you don’t make a long-term commitment, then they feel like you don’t completely believe in them.”
We’ll see whether the sides can reach an agreement soon.
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When Detroit’s season concluded, what came next was unclear. Dan Campbell acknowledged it’ll be hard to get back to the cusp of a Super Bowl. As we know, before this season’s run, this franchise hadn’t made it to an NFC title game in 32 years. There was a chance they’d have to try to take the next step without Ben Johnson and/or Aaron Glenn, as their division and schedule get tougher.
Holmes wasn’t having it.
“Every move that me and Dan make, it has been made to sustain what we are building,” Holmes said. “Every single move. And I will say every single move that we make — and every single move we do not make — is to sustain what we have been building. So, it’s real.
“Look, it’s all to normalize what we’re doing, all right? This is to normalize it. These are efforts to normalize it. It’s Dan, places Dan’s been; it was normalized. Places I’ve been, it’s normalized. That’s why we’re here — we’re bringing this to normalize what this is right now.”
“Normalize winning.” Don’t be surprised if you see that on a T-shirt worn by Holmes or Campbell in the future. It’s a great motto and something Holmes is passionate about. And the truth is this is why the Lions built it the way they did. They didn’t cut corners years ago and sign aging veterans to high-priced contracts. They weren’t afraid to go after their guys in the draft, rather than sticking to consensus, and they slept like babies as a result.
The plan doesn’t change just because they’ve tasted success. They fully expect to have multiple shots to win it all with the crew they’ve assembled. As with everything else this regime has done, it would be wise to wait and see.
“We love where we’re at,” Holmes said. “This was to be expected. It’s the standard. We love the window that we’re in. We just got finished with Year 3. We’re still building. We’ll stick to our plan. We’ll continue to put all of our effort into improving each year, which we’ve done, in my opinion, and we’ll just stick to that.”
(Top photo: Jeff Nguyen / Detroit Lions via Associated Press)