Five games into his second season as Lions head coach, Dan Campbell did not expect to be here. But here he is and here they are, 1-4 entering the bye. It's been a bumpier road than expected for Campbell, who's stumbled into a few potholes himself.
"I did not anticipate us being 1-4 going into the bye," Campbell said Monday after digesting the Lions' 29-0 loss to the Patriots. "I did not see that. But I also know, man, it’s a long season and I know the kind of guys we’ve got. I know what we’re capable of when we get it right."
They got nothing right last Sunday. Now they have two weeks to start fixing it. Campbell said he feels better about his NFL-worst defense after it showed a few signs of life in a loss to a third-string rookie QB because he "got clarity on some things and I know how we need to proceed moving forward." He likely feels worse about what was the NFL's best offense, even though he believes it's "going to be better than what they portrayed yesterday."
The Lions have little to feel good about nearly a third of the way through the season, but Campbell has no choice but to be optimistic. Not that he isn't upset.
"Everybody is upset," he said. "Everybody is frustrated. Nobody likes losing here. I think everybody knows we’re better than 1-4, but we haven’t showed that collectively."
This is the first crossroads of Campbell's tenure in Detroit. The Lions have to be a better team on the other side of the bye. Campbell has to identify where and how they can improve -- and then it has to show up in their record. The four other NFL head coaches in year two of their tenures this season have a combined record of 13-7, which is somewhat skewed by Nick Sirianni's 5-0 Eagles. Campbell and the Lions aren't "better than 1-4" until they prove it.
"Make adjustments," Campbell said of his aim over the bye. "Figure out what we can do better."
"How do we use our personnel, what do we do to maximize the personnel? Do we need to shift some of the things that we do defensively, offensively? Do we need to calm things down even more? How do we practice?" he said. "What do we need to do?"
The Lions have a clear talent deficit. That's the reality of the roster Campbell and Holmes inherited from the prior regime. Then again, the Jets have a clear talent deficit and are 3-2 under second-year head coach Robert Saleh. The Giants might have the clearest talent deficit in the NFC and they're 4-1 under first-year head coach Brian Daboll. At some point soon, the Lions have to start making progress where it matters.
Especially if Campbell truly believes they have enough talent to turn things around this season.
"l do," he said. "I think we’ve got plenty here to win with. On this roster, on the practice squad, we’ve got plenty. And there’s a number of combinations we haven’t even tried yet, so we’re going to look at everything. We’ll adjust what we need to as coaches, but across the board, our FBI (football intelligence) has to become much more important. I do think that’s got to be an area that we really focus on moving forward."
Injuries are another culprit for the Lions' slow start, exposing the team's lack of depth. Campbell said it feels like they've "been riding this wave for a year and a half," but these are the high seas of the NFL. It's not about winning at your best. Any team can thrive with a fully-healthy roster. It's about surviving at your worst. That's the mark of a good coach, making due with what he's got.
Credit Campbell for acknowledging this: "Just because you don’t have guys in, like any other team, we have to find ways to win. That can’t be an excuse like last year."
Last year was ground zero of an all-out rebuild. Close losses could pass as progress and the occasional no-show, like blowouts at home to the Eagles and the Bengals, could be chalked up to the growing pains of a young team. Even head-scratching decisions could be excused for a rookie head coach. The woes would be worth it this season.
So it was slightly concerning when Campbell said Sunday after a no-show in New England that "sometimes it's going to get bad before it gets better." That rhetoric belongs in the rearview. By now, the Lions were supposed to be getting better. So was their coach, whose needlessly aggressive decision to go for a 4th and 9 late in the second quarter turned a potential 6-3 deficit at halftime into a 16-0 hole.
The season is not lost. The coach should not be fired. His seat should not be hot. But that will change if the results stay the same, if the Lions keep losing games they could have won, if their only victories are moral. If Campbell doesn't show more of the same football intelligence he's demanding from his players. He gave his team a chance at a huge Week 2 win in Minnesota, then yanked it away with another backfire on fourth down.
The Panthers fired head coach Matt Rhule on Monday two seasons and change into a seven-year contract. He was 11-27. Campbell is 4-17-1 one season and change into a six-year contract. He is 1-4 in a season when the NFL's 14 other first- or second-year head coaches are a combined 37-31. He took over a bad team that has yet to tangibly improve. The clock is starting to tick.
"I’m not going to get down," Campbell said. "I don’t get frustrated like that. Yeah, I’m upset, but as coach and player, I’ve just seen it too many times: you get a little momentum, things will turn in a hurry and then you could be the hottest team going."
Or on the hottest seat yet.