What ‘Them Lions’ Teach Us About Turnarounds

John Baldoni, Contributor Jan. 18, 2024 Forbes

Turnaround efforts are always tricky. They can be especially challenging when preceded by periods of malaise, disengagement and low productivity. Such was the case with the Detroit Lions, who last won a championship in 1957. Since that time, the team has won one playoff game.

Until now!

The Lions beat the Los Angeles Rams in their first playoff victory since 1993. In remarks to the team, head coach Dan Campbell recognized the efforts of two people, giving each a game ball. One was general manager Brad Holmes. Noting how they both came to the organization together, Campbell said, "You [and I] are in lockstep."

Campbell t urned to his quarterback: "I will just say it like this … You're good enough for Detroit, Jared Goff.” This comment refers to Goff being unceremoniously traded to the Lions after Rams coach Sean McVay lost faith in him despite leading the team to the Super Bowl in February 2019.

66 years of disappointment

“Them Lions” — one of many sobriquets bestowed by fans — have been the poster kids for mediocrity for so long that those alive during their heyday in the Fifties are either dead or eligible for Social Security. Lions haplessness has become their trademark.

For example, in 2010, the Lions started quarterback Shaun Hill, who was recuperating from surgery on a broken left arm. Lions commentator noted, however, that it was not King’s throwing arm. What team in the 21 st century starts a quarterback with a broken arm? Why? Because even in his hobbled condition, King was their best alternative.

Welcome to Lions’ misery. No team has snatched defeat from the jaws of victories more than the Lions have. When you add up fumbles, interceptions, coaching mistakes, and 60-yard field goals made by Lions opponents, you could have had a couple of winning seasons.

A fresh start

And so when Campbell and Holmes were hired in 2021, expectations were "expectant." It's better to wait to jump on the bandwagon. And the team did not disappoint. It went 3-13-1 in the first season with Jared Goff at the helm. Expectations did rise for year two, and the Lions when 1-6, but then things began to click. The Lions went 8-2 down the stretch, just missing the playoffs. This year, the team excelled out of the gate, posting a 12-5 regular season record, the most ever for a Lions team.

Pulling back the layers, the story of the Lions comeback is both rebirth and reconstruction. And here's how they did it.

Get the culture right. Holmes and Campbell had a plan, and together with Sheila Ford Hamp, who had taken over the running of the team from her mother, Martha, they focused on breaking bad habits and building a team with players who understood they must have a passion for doing what it takes to work hard, play their best, and win when it matters.

Speaking to reporters later, Campbell was more specific about the role that Brad Holmes played. “We’re very similar in the way that we view players, view a team, how we want to build it… “I have a certain vision and Brad has helped me by the type of players we acquire and what we look for. Campbell added , the “GM and head coach have to have a healthy relationship and it starts with ownership, but then that’s the next most important by far. And if you don’t have that, you just can’t sustain success.”

Find the right pieces. In 2021, the team traded star quarterback Matthew Stafford to the Rams in return for Goff and two first-round draft picks. Those draft picks and other lower-ranked picks sourced by Holmes and his scouts have given the Lions a nucleus of young players upon which the culture can thrive and the wins can come.

Support the struggle . Jared Goff had a rough start with the Lions whose roster did not compare with the Rams team he had once led. Goff’s coaches did not lose faith in him or other players. They nurtured their talents and built game plans suited to each player's strengths.

Be patient. Sheila Hamp deserves credit for holding fast and keeping Holmes and Campbell in the fold. She was booed at Ford Field but did not become discouraged. She knew fans' frustrations because the team had been in her family since her girlhood. Sheila set expectations and supported her leadership team.

Common goals

A culture of winning comes when you have the right people in the right places at the right time. Easy to say but so difficult to implement. What the Lions have accomplished is a tribute to leadership and team working together to achieve common goals.

Will the Lions find a way to win it all? Perhaps, but for now, the team has achieved what fans – among the most loyal in all sports – thought was only a dream. In doing so, they have given fans something to cheer for and a lesson in leadership that will stand the test of time.

Note: After the game, Sean McVay praised his former quarterback “Jared was really efficient. You can see the command he has. I think there’s a lot made of it, but I’m really happy for him… and I certainly am appreciative of the four years we had together.”

By John Baldoni, Contributor

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