The Detroit Lions share a lot in common with the MLB’s Chicago Cubs. Both are big Midwestern sports brands that are among the most talked about teams in their respective cities. Both teams have a long history of losing and often play the role of the “lovable underdog” when they do win. In fact, both teams are often doubted in the postseason when they do make it there because of their reputations.
Then, in the mid-2010s, something weird happened- the Cubs suddenly became really good and a consistent postseason threat. Under the leadership of baseball nerd Theo Epstein, the Cubs underwent a three-year rebuild from 2012 to 2014, before their farm system started to bear fruits in 2015. From that year until 2020, the Cubs had their best stretch in franchise history: three division titles, three NLCS trips, and a World Series win in 2016. Suddenly, the lovable losers were world champions.
As a die-hard Cubs fan, I can tell you right now that what happened in Chicago is currently happening with the Detroit Lions.
When the Lions hired GM Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell in 2021, it was clear that they had a plan. Similar to Epstein with the Cubs, Holmes’ primary goal was to accumulate draft picks and young players in his first two seasons. Initially viewed as sort of a meathead, Campbell had a coaching vision that eventually panned out: a team-first mentality combined with physical play. Like the Cubs, the Lions did not initially win as the plan came together, as they had a 3-13-1 record in the first season of the Holmes-Campbell era. Then, they started out the 2022 season with a 1-6 record before their plan came to fruition: an 8-2 finish to the season capped by a primetime win over the arch-rival Packers. The Lions did not make the playoffs, but they had arrived.
Many of Detroit’s best players today are players drafted or acquired by Holmes. Outside of offensive linemen Frank Ragnow, Jonah Jackson, and Taylor Decker, as well as defensive end Romeo Okwara, all of the Lions’ notable players are tied to Holmes. The Matthew Stafford trade enabled the Lions to get Jared Goff and draft picks, and while those picks produced mixed results, they did yield two key offensive pieces in current rookies Jahmyr Gibbs and Sam LaPorta. The Lions’ performances in 2021 and 2022 enabled them to draft Penei Sewell and Aidan Hutchinson. Holmes has also done a fantastic job finding late-round steals in Alim McNeill, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Kerby Joseph, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, and Brian Branch.
The Lions and Cubs both used the trade market and free agency to their advantages. Like the Lions with Goff, the Cubs swung key trades to get pitchers Jake Arrieta and Aroldis Chapman. Free agency allowed the Lions to pick up players such as Alex Anzalone, David Montgomery, John Cominsky, and Okwara. Similarly, the Cubs used free agency to acquire a few key players from their World Series winning team- Jon Lester, John Lackey, Dexter Fowler, and eventual WS MVP Ben Zobrist.
Get ready to be using the Detroit Lions in sentences with the following terms- NFC North champions, playoff contenders, and maybe even Super Bowl champions. It will take some getting used to like it did with the Cubs, but it will eventually become a common thing.
Now, while the Lions may win the division this year, they probably won’t have a lot of initial playoff success. They are still a younger team and will face much more experienced competition in the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers. Similarly, the 2015 Cubs reached the NLCS in their first year of true title contention, but were swept in four games by the more experienced New York Mets.
The Lions, like the Cubs, will get better over time with more experience and will experience more playoff success in the years to come. Lions fans, your time has come. It’s finally time for you to experience a true contender that can compete with the perennial big boys.
I will end the article with this- if the Chicago Cubs can win a World Series, the Detroit Lions can win a Super Bowl. Coincidentally, I am writing this on the seventh anniversary on that euphoric World Series-winning night.