In January, Dan Campbell made one of the worst decisions anyone who loves football can make: He chose to become professionally and emotionally invested in the success of the Detroit Lions.
Before coming to Detroit, Campbell was the assistant head coach of the Saints, who won three playoff games in his five seasons with the team. The Lions have won one playoff game. You know, since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. Campbell spent three years with the Lions during his career as an NFL tight end—he played a single game for the 2008 team that finished 0-16, suffering a season-ending injury in the process—but he seems to have been wholly unprepared for the emotional hellscape that is coaching the Lions.
When Campbell took over as Detroit’s head coach, he made headlines for his quotable press conferences—notably, for his expressed interest in biting human kneecaps. But his over-the-top persona felt genuine, and when the time came for his team to play, Campbell coached with a rare level of aggressiveness that backed up his anything-to-win mentality.
As always happens with the Lions, though, the losses quickly started piling up. Detroit is now 0-9-1, the only team in the NFL without a win. Everybody else has at least two wins; the Lions are stuck on zero.
They have repeatedly come astonishingly close to winning a game this season, but it just hasn’t happened. In Week 1, they mounted a furious comeback against the 49ers, rallying from a 38-10 second-half deficit to trail by only eight points in the game’s final minute. After forcing a key fumble, they had a chance to drive down the field and force overtime. Instead, they stalled out on the cusp of the red zone and lost to San Francisco 41-33.
In Week 3, they led Baltimore 17-16 … until Justin Tucker made the longest field goal in NFL history as time expired, with the ball bouncing up and over the crossbar to seal Detroit’s cruel fate. If the Ravens had any other kicker in league history—or if the ball had been spotted even a few inches farther from the uprights—the Lions would have a win. But Tucker was good from 66 yards, and the Ravens pulled out the victory.
In Week 5, Campbell played for the win against the Vikings, calling for a go-ahead two-point conversion with 37 seconds left in regulation instead of playing for a tie. It worked! Quarterback Jared Goff found wide receiver KhaDarel Hodge in the end zone to give Detroit a 17-16 lead. Campbell took a gamble, and he was rewarded.
But then the Vikings proceeded to move the ball 46 yards in 34 seconds of game time and won on a 54-yard field goal as the clock expired. The Lions became the second team ever to convert a go-ahead two-point try in the final minute and lose, as well as the first ever to lose on two 50-plus-yard field goals as time expired in the same season.
In Week 7, Campbell called for two fake punts and a surprise onside kick against the Rams—and succeeded on all three, essentially stealing three possessions from Los Angeles.
It didn’t matter: Detroit lost 28-19 after failing to score a touchdown on five trips to the red zone.
In Week 10 against the Steelers, the Lions somehow came even closer to winning than they did in Week 2 against the Ravens. This time they tied. Backup kicker Ryan Santoso fell way short on a potential game-winning 48-yard field goal try in overtime, and Detroit and Pittsburgh closed the contest deadlocked at 16. This result technically ended the Lions’ losing streak, but kept their winless streak alive. If they lose out, the Lions will be the first team since 1960 to complete a full season with a tie but no wins.
In Week 11, Detroit lost to Cleveland 13-10. It almost won in spite of starting Tim Boyle, one of the worst quarterbacks ever to play in an NFL game. Boyle was historically bad—no player has ever completed so many passes for so few yards; Boyle currently has the shortest and the most interceptable passes in the league—but the Lions still had the ball with a chance to go ahead in the waning minutes. That possession ended in a punt; they never got the ball again.
And so, over the course of this season, as the Lions have kept losing in improbable and excruciating fashion, I too have made one of the worst decisions anyone who loves football can make: I have become emotionally invested in the success of the Detroit Lions. I don’t need this team to make the playoffs. I don’t even need them to come anywhere close. As the Lions prepare for their annual Thanksgiving Day outing, I just want Dan Campbell’s crew to win one damn game.
When NFL teams are winless, I typically root for them to stay that way. What can I say? I’m a sports sadist, and I have a thing for watching historically bad football.
But these Lions aren’t historically bad. Their point differential (-113) is only slightly worse than that of the 4-6 Falcons (-110), and it’s significantly better than that of the 2-8 Jets (-142). They’ve clearly played well enough to win, it’s just the evil demons in charge of tormenting Lions fans haven’t allowed it to happen.
Besides, when modern NFL teams are winless, they often seem to want to stay that way. We’re firmly in the Tanking Era of professional sports. In the 10 seasons between 1997 and 2006, only three teams started 0-8. In the 15 seasons since, 15 have opened with that record, including both 0-16 teams in NFL history. It was once considered taboo to lose a ton; now, it can be seen as a savvy move with the no. 1 draft pick in mind.
Sure, players don’t tank; even if coaches and general managers know it’s best for a franchise’s future if a team loses a given game, the best thing for a player’s future is typically to perform well. But it is hard to keep players from being affected by the pervasive stench of intentional failure. They know when a roster is built to self-destruct.
The 2021 Lions are an exception to this rule. Nobody on the roster seems to have given up. Even though the team declared its intention to prioritize the long term over the short term in January by trading Matthew Stafford to the Rams for Jared Goff and three draft picks, Detroit’s players have continued to buy in. They keep trying even though this season is lost, and even when games appear lost. Running back D’Andre Swift has reeled off back-to-back 100-plus-yard efforts. Rookie offensive tackle Penei Sewell hasn’t allowed a sack since Week 5, even if the quarterbacks behind him are using clean pockets to throw interceptions. It takes a rare form of pride to keep fighting when you’re a player on a winless team that’s trailing by three scores—but so many of this year’s Lions have that pride.
The NFL is filled with blowhards and self-important jerks who believe everybody in the world must listen to them because an NFL owner has given them power. (The Lions were coached by one last season.) They ask a lot of their players and give nothing in return; it is always the assistants, players, media members, and fans who are to blame. (Just ask the guy coaching the Bears!) There are plenty of coaches who could walk into a locker room and say the ridiculous things Campbell does and get laughed straight out of the facility. But with Campbell it feels different, because of what he’s willing to give.
It’s clear this season is killing him. “I’m in a twilight zone,” he said after the tie against the Steelers. Every week he enters his postgame presser with his face a different shade of bright red. After the loss to the Vikings—the second 50-plus-yard field goal as time expired—Campbell wept:
There is something real here. In a league full of performative toughness, the Lions are doing the toughest thing of all: continuing to put their hearts and bodies into each week’s game, even when each week ends in a loss.
I don’t know how long they can keep it up. When The Ringer’s Kevin Clark profiled Campbell in September, he wrote that “Campbell’s biggest fear is that he will feel he has to act in a way he does not want to.” That nightmare is already becoming reality. After making headlines for his aggressiveness early in the season, Campbell has grown more conservative. In Sunday’s matchup against the Browns, he stuck to a wildly unimaginative game plan, with Boyle rarely passing the ball more than 5 yards downfield. The Lions kicked a field goal on a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter while trailing by six points; they dialed up a draw play on a third-and-14 before punting on their final possession. Campbell was all but playing Madden against the Rams. Now he’s coaching scared in winnable games?
We could be watching the start of a successful Lions rebuild. Campbell seems like the right guy for the job, and his players are backing that up. In a way, nothing that happens this season really matters. But if Detroit goes 0-16-1? That would matter. People around the franchise would start to get understandably antsy—and it feels like the losing could change Campbell’s outlook on the sport. Each loss appears to be sucking out a little bit more of his life force. It’s tough to see someone so bold and brash look weaker and meeker each week. He’s lost his appetite for kneecaps.
Of all the sordid, garbage teams in football history, this one seems least deserving of its record and fate. And so, I am begging the football gods who have tormented the Detroit Lions since the moment they came onto this earth: Please, let these Lions win a damn game. If they care this much about losses, the joy from one win can power them into 2022.