Lions and Jaguars flip downtrodden history on its head as they enter 2023 promising

As things stand at the start of June, with training camp just weeks away, the Detroit Lions (+140 with BetMGM) and Jacksonville Jaguars (-160) are the favorites to win their respective divisions. If the two do end up making the playoffs, it would be the first time this has happened since 1997.

It would be an incredible turnaround for two clubs that have historically been among the worst in the NFL. The Lions and Jaguars have the second- and third-lowest winning percentages, respectively, since 2002, when the NFL officially expanded to 32 teams. They’ve been riddled with horrible draft picks, poor coaching and overall incompetence that has led to just 14 combined playoff appearances and nine combined seasons of at least 10 wins in the 28 recent seasons.

But everything could change in 2023.

This will be Detroit’s first season as a division favorite under the current iteration and only the second time as a division favorite in Jacksonville history – and the teams will play eight combined prime-time games. , including five for the Lions and three for the Jaguars. A year ago, both teams were scheduled to finish third in their respective divisions and each play a prime-time game.

So how did this happen? How did two franchises seemingly break the systemic cycle of organizational malfeasance and create a winning culture? It took restraint, a shift in culture, and situational luck.

Lions, Jaguars pivoted quickly after mistakes

Jared Goff and Trevor Lawrence lead the Lions and Jaguars to NFL prominence.  (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

The future for both teams looked bleak after the 2021 season.

Detroit, who had just traded and watched Matthew Stafford win his first Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams, finished with the second pick after a predictably poor 3-14-1 season in Dan Campbell’s freshman year in as head coach. Jacksonville, meanwhile, fared less well and ended up with the No. 1 pick for the second straight year after a terrible season under Urban Meyer, who was fired after just 13 games.

Same dysfunction, different year for the two franchises. And it wouldn’t have been a big surprise to see either club continue the pattern that plagued them for decades after their off-season moves didn’t look great.

The Lions kept quarterback Jared Goff, whom they acquired as part of the Stafford deal and who had a lackluster season, and made no splashy moves. The Jaguars did the opposite and spent lavishly — more than $177.5 million in guaranteed contracts — including a big contract with receiver Christian Kirk worth $18 million a year. Even low-cost additions like tight end Evan Engram and wide receiver Zay Jones looked like mistakes at the time.

However, both of these paths have proven to be correct for both franchises. The Lions relied on their in-house talent as well as their hard-nosed coaching staff, while the Jaguars went all-in on second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence despite his dwindling rookie season and trusted the new head coach Doug Pederson to fix the offense. So while at first it looked like the same old Lions and Jaguars, it was anything but.

Campbell and Pederson changed the culture

The Lions and Jaguars received their fair share of punchline treatment when they signed Campbell and Meyer, respectively. Campbell’s press conferences went viral for his ridiculous phrases, while Meyer appeared in over his head from the start.

But where Meyer failed in 2021, Campbell actually succeeded in laying the foundation for what the Lions look like today. He galvanized an underdog dressing room with conviction and refused to deviate from the plan he and general manager Brad Holmes began in 2021. Even when the Lions started the 2022 season 1-6, Campbell reiterated “how The Lions were close to competition after a last-second touchdown sealed a 31-27 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 8.

“As frustrating as it sounds, I know how close we are because we’re still talking about a game,” Campbell said after the game. “The hardest thing is to keep doing your job and stay in the heart of the storm. The easiest thing is to go down below, get under the blanket and eat all the food or whatever.

The Lions won eight of their next 10 games, including a Week 18 win over NFC North rival Green Bay Packers to keep Aaron Rodgers out of the playoffs.

A similar situation occurred in Jacksonville after the Jaguars tapped Pederson to run the show after his year without the NFL. Not only did Pederson, who made the playoffs four of his six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and won a Super Bowl in the 2017 season, build an offense where Lawrence could thrive, but he also acted as a healer. for a club in shock after the Meyer. debacle. Pederson explained in one of his first off-season training sessions in 2022 that he needed to regain the trust of a team that had lost faith in its former head coach.

“They have to see the transparency, the honesty,” Pederson said. “I’ve always said I’m going to be open with them and I want them to be open with me. It just comes down to communication and having an open line of communication. We’ve been able to have conversations that way in the team settings and I think the guys have really embraced it and are doing well.

The Jaguars reacted the same way the Lions did in 2022 – a poor 3-7 start followed by a 6-1 finish that culminated in an AFC South title against the two-time defending champion Tennessee Titans, an incredible comeback of 27 points in the AFC Wildcard Round and a one-scoring loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs in the Divisional Round. The offense finished 10th in yards and points, while the defense allowed 12th-fewest points and Lawrence was top-10 in passing yards, passing touchdowns and scoring. quarterback.

Doug Pederson (left) and Dan Campbell navigated the Lions and Jaguars out of mediocrity.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Doug Pederson (left) and Dan Campbell navigated the Lions and Jaguars out of mediocrity. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

In the right place at the right time

Luck will play a role in either team’s rise to prominence in 2023 considering both play in divisions with no dominant team or quarterback.

The Lions’ NFC North no longer have the Rodgers-led Packers after the star QB was traded to the Jets, and it’s unclear how effective Jordan Love will be as his successor. Kirk Cousins ​​is probably the best quarterback in the division, but the Minnesota Vikings also proved to be a bit of a contender last season. The Chicago Bears, meanwhile, are still trying to find an identity around Justin Fields after finishing with the NFL’s worst record last season.

The AFC South, where the Jaguars play, is even more uncertain. The Titans crumbled at the end of the 2022 season and don’t seem ready to reclaim the throne with Ryan Tannehill at center. The Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts will likely start rookie quarterbacks at some point this season after Houston took CJ Stroud and Indianapolis took Anthony Richardson early in the draft.

This creates a big enough power vacuum for the Lions and Jaguars to rush in and take over.

For Detroit, that means continuing a system that worked at the end of 2022 — an offense built on getting down the field and making few mistakes with Goff and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown leading the way. charge.

The Lions had the fourth-most offensive yards in Weeks 9-18 and turned the ball over just four times in their 8-2 run. Detroit also finished with the fourth-best expected points added per game and best EPA per setback during that span. As for the defense, it went from being one of the worst in the NFL in the first half of the season to being in the middle of the pack in the second half.

A weird draft could complicate the upward trajectory, but Detroit still added hard-hitting players like defensive back Brian Branch, running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta with three of their first four draft picks.

Jacksonville has a clearer path to the top of the division after firing all of its starters from last season and also added wide receiver Calvin Ridley following a mid-season trade and his reinstatement after a suspension from play. ‘a year.

Lawrence will remain key to the Jaguars’ success after passing for the ninth-most yards, tied for the eighth-most touchdowns and had the 10th-highest quarterback rating in Weeks 10-18. Ridley and the quartet of Kirk, Engram, Jones and running back Travis Etienne give the Jaguars a powerful group of skill position players to defend their division title in 2023. The front office also added three offensive players with their first three draft picks in offensive tackle. Anton Harrison, tight end Brenton Strange and running back Tank Bigsby.

The hype is dangerous — just ask the 2022 Denver Broncos — and Campbell has already said this offseason he’s not in the hype. But it’s hard to look at both the Lions and the Jaguars and see them as the same teams that have struggled in the dregs of the NFL for so many years. The system, culture and players seem better and have already tasted a slice of success.

This is the year for either team to prove they are ready to put past mistakes behind them. If it doesn’t happen now, who knows if it might one day.

Leave a Comment