September 30, 2023

Lions, Jaguars both turn suppressed history upside down and head into the auspicious 2023

As things stand in early June, weeks into training camp, the Detroit Lions (+140 with BetMGM) and Jacksonville Jaguars (-160) sit as favorites to win their respective divisions. If both make the playoffs, it would be the first time since 1997.

That 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 are riddled with terrible draft picks, poor coaching and overall ineptitude, leading to just 14 combined playoff appearances and nine combined seasons of at least 10 wins over the past 28 seasons

But that could all change in 2023.

It will be Detroit’s first season as the division favorite under the current iteration and only the second time as the division leader in Jacksonville history – and the teams will play a total of eight primetime games, including five for the Lions and three for the Jaguars. A year ago, both teams were expected to finish third in their respective divisions, each playing one 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 culture shift, and situational luck.

Lions, Jaguars turned quickly after mistakes

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

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

Detroit, having just traded and watched Matthew Stafford win his first Super Bowl with the Los Angeles Rams, ended up with the No. 2 pick after a predictably poor 3-14-1 season in Dan Campbell’s first year as head coach. Jacksonville, meanwhile, fared worse, finishing in the No. 1 pick for the second straight year after a terrible season under Urban Meyer, who was fired after only 13 games.

Same dysfunction, different year for both franchises. And it wouldn’t have come as a huge surprise to see both clubs continue the pattern that’s plagued them for decades after their off-season moves haven’t looked great.

The Lions kept quarterback Jared Goff, who they acquired in the Stafford deal and who had a mediocre season, and made no smashing moves. The Jaguars did the opposite, spending lavishly — more than $177.5 million in guaranteed contracts — including a big-money deal to receiver Christian Kirk worth $18 million a year. Even cheap additions like tight end Evan Engram and wide receiver Zay Jones looked like mistakes at the time.

However, those two paths proved correct for both franchises. The Lions leaned on their in-house talent as well as their tenacious coaching staff, while the Jaguars went all-in on sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence despite his poor rookie season and relied on new head coach Doug Pederson to fix the offense. So while it looked like the same old lions and jaguars at first, it was anything but.

Campbell and Pederson changed the culture

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

But where Meyer failed in 2021, Campbell succeeded in laying the foundation for what the Lions look like today. He fired up a stifled locker room with conviction, refusing to deviate from the plan he and general manager Brad Holmes had started in 2021. touchdown at the last second sealed a 31–27 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 8.

“As frustrating as it is, I know how close we are because we’re still talking about one game,” Campbell said after the game. “The hard part is to just keep doing your job and stay in the middle of the storm. The easy thing is to get down, get under the covers and eat all the food or whatever.

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

A similar situation occurred in Jacksonville after the Jaguars tapped Pederson to run the show following his year off from the NFL. Pederson, who made the playoffs four of his six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles and won a Super Bowl in the 2017 season, not only built an offense for Lawrence to thrive on, but he also played the role of a healer for a club struggling the wavering was after the Meyer debacle. Pederson explained during one of his first off-season workouts in 2022 that he needed to regain the trust of a team that had lost faith in their previous head coach.

“They need 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 an open line of communication. We’ve been able to have some conversations that way. It’s in team settings and I think that 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 over the two-time defending champion Tennessee Titans, an incredible 27-point comeback in the AFC’s wild card round and a one-score loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs in the division round. The offense finished 10th in yards and points, while the defense allowed 12th fewest points and Lawrence was in the top-10 in passing yards, passing touchdowns, and quarterback rating.

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)

Right place right time

Luck will play a role in both teams’ emergence in 2023, as both teams play in divisions without a dominant team or quarterback.

The Lions’ NFC North no longer has 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 succes
sor. Kirk Cousins ​​is probably the best quarterback in the division, but the Minnesota Vikings also proved to be a bit of a pretender last season. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears are still trying to find an identity around Justin Fields after finishing with the worst record in the NFL last season.

Even more uncertain is the AFC South, where the Jaguars play. The Titans collapsed at the end of the 2022 season and don’t seem ready to retake the throne with Ryan Tannehill in the middle. The Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts are both likely to start this season as rookie quarterbacks, after Houston’s CJ Stroud and Indianapolis Anthony Richardson entered the draft early.

This creates quite a power vacuum for the lions and jaguars to swoop in and grab.

For Detroit, it means a continuation of a system that worked at the end of 2022 – an offense that focused on getting to the field and making few mistakes with Goff and breakaway receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown leading the charge.

The Lions scored the fourth-most offensive yards of Week 9-18, turning the ball over just four times during their 8-2 finish. Detroit also finished with the fourth-best expected points added per game and the best EPA per dropback during that span. As for the defense, it went from one of the worst in the NFL in the first half of the season to mid-range in the second half.

A weird draft could complicate the upward trajectory, but Detroit still added influential 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 returning all of its starters from last season and also adding receiver Calvin Ridley after a mid-season trade and his recovery from a one-year gambling suspension.

Lawrence will remain key to the Jaguars’ success after passing for ninth most yards, tied for eighth touchdowns and had the 10th best quarterback rating from 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.

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

This is the year where both teams must prove they are ready to put the mistakes of the past behind them. If it doesn’t happen now, who knows if it ever could.

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