Lions, Jaguars looking to rewrite history


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

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

But that could all change in 2023.

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

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 pivoted quickly after errors

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

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


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

Same dysfunction, different year for both franchises. And it wouldn’t have been much of a surprise to see either club continue the pattern that plagued them for decades after their offseason moves didn’t look great.

The Lions kept quarterback Jared Goff, who they acquired in the Stafford deal and who had a mediocre season, and didn’t make any splashy moves. The Jaguars did the opposite and spent lavishly — more than $177.5 million in guaranteed contracts — including a big-money deal to receiver Christian Kirk worth $18 million annually. Even low-cost 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 internal talent as well as their hard-nosed coaching staff, while the Jaguars went all-in on second-year quarterback Trevor Lawrence despite his down rookie season and trusted new head coach Doug Pederson to fix the offense. So while early on 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 hired Campbell and Meyer, respectively. Campbell’s press conferences went viral for his ridiculous phrases, while Meyer appeared in over his head from nearly the get-go.

But where Meyer failed in 2021, Campbell actually succeeded in building the foundation for what the Lions look like today. He galvanized a downtrodden locker room with belief 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 close” the Lions were to competing after a last-second touchdown sealed a 31-27 loss to the Miami Dolphins in Week 8.

“As frustrating as it is, I know how close were are because we are still talking about one play,” Campbell said after the game. “The hard thing is to just keep doing your job and staying in the thick of the storm. The easy thing is to go down below, get under the blanket and eat all the food or whatever.


The Lions went on to win eight of their next 10 games, including a Week 18 win 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. Not only did Pederson, who made the playoffs four 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 played the role of healer for a club reeling after the Meyer debacle. Pederson explained during one of his first offseason workouts in 2022 that he needed to gain back the trust of a team that lost faith in their previous 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 some conversations that way in team settings and I think the guys have really embraced it and are doing well.”

The Jaguars responded similarly to how the Lions did in 2022 — a bad 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 wild-card round and a one-score loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Chiefs in the divisional round. The offense finished 10th in yards and points, while the defense allowed the 12th-fewest points and Lawrence ranked 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 the rise of either team in 2023 considering both play in divisions without a dominant team or quarterback.


The Lions’ NFC North doesn’t have the Rodgers-led Packers anymore 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 proved to be a bit of a pretender this past season as well. The Chicago Bears, meanwhile, are still trying to find an identity around Justin Fields after they finished with the worst record in the NFL this past 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 appear poised to retake the throne with Ryan Tannehill under center. The Houston Texans and Indianapolis Colts will both likely start rookie quarterbacks at some point this season after Houston took C.J. Stroud and Indianapolis took Anthony Richardson early in the draft.

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 predicated on getting downfield and making few mistakes with Goff and breakout receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown leading the charge.


The Lions tallied the fourth-most offensive yards from Weeks 9-18 and only turned the ball over four times during their 8-2 finish. Detroit also finished with the fourth-best expected points added per play 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 middle-of-the-pack by the second half.

A weird draft could complicate the upward trajectory, but Detroit still added impactful 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 it returned all of its starters from this past season and also added receiver Calvin Ridley following a midseason trade and his reinstatement after a year-long gambling suspension.


Lawrence will remain the key to the Jaguars’ success after he passed for the ninth-most yards, tied for the eighth-most 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 he isn’t into the hype. But it’s hard to look at both the Lions and Jaguars and see them as the same teams that toiled in the dregs of the NFL for so many years. The system, culture and players appear better and have already tasted a slice of success.

This is the year for either team to prove it’s ready to move on from the mistakes of the past. If it doesn’t happen now, who knows if it ever could.

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