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Why NFL history suggests the Detroit Lions won’t be back as Super Bowl contenders

Detroit Lions
Credit: Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Detroit Lions reached the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1991, taking a 17-point lead over the San Francisco 49ers only to collapse in the second half. After coming so close to a Super Bowl appearance, fans and players are confident the Lions will be back in 2024.

However, the NFL changes from year to year. The Philadelphia Eagles just went from NFC champions to one of the worst late-season collapses for a 10-1 team in NFL history. Furthermore, six of the 14 playoff teams from last year didn’t make it in this season. As Dan Campbell told the players after the game, the Lions might never experience this high again.

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“Sometimes you can only say so much. You gotta live it, unfortunately. You gotta get your heart ripped out, which we did. And it’s a lesson learned. And look, I told those guys, ‘This may have been our only shot.’ Do I think that? No. Do I believe that? No. However, I know how hard it is to get here. I am well aware. It’s gonna be twice as hard to get back to this point next year.”

Dan Campbell on part of his message to Detroit Lions players after the NFC Championship Game

While it might seem like a harsh message to send to a devastated locker room after playoff heartbreak, NFL history captures why Campbell is right.

NFL history isn’t on the Detroit Lions’ side

Syndication: Detroit Free Press
Credit: Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Many will immediately point to the same 49ers franchise as an example of sustained excellence. Under head coach Kyle Shanahan, San Francisco has played in three consecutive NFC Championship Games and reached the Super Bowl twice in five years with two different quarterbacks.

Similarly, the Kansas City Chiefs have played in six consecutive AFC Championship Games with Patrick Mahomes. For Detroit to be part of that company, they’ll either need Jared Goff to suddenly. become one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history or to field one of the best NFL rosters for five consecutive years.

History suggests the 49ers and Chiefs are outliers. Before San Francisco and Kansas City sat atop the NFL hierarchy, several teams reached great heights or exceeded the Lions’ peak this season and then collapsed.

2020 Green Bay Packers13-4, 2020 NFC Championship loss30-21, 1 playoff win
2019 Tennessee Titans9-7, 2019 AFC Championship loss36-31, 0 playoff wins
2018 New England Patriots11-5 record, Super Bowl champions41-42, 0 playoff wins
2018 Chicago Bears12-4, 2018 Wild Card loss32-51, 0 playoff wins
2018 New Orleans Saints13-3, 2018 NFC Championship loss50-33, 1 playoff win
2017 Minnesota Vikings13-3, 2017 NFC Championship loss53-45-1, 1 playoff win
2017 Jacksonville Jaguars10-6, 2017 AFC Championship loss33-66, 1 playoff win
2016 Atlanta Falcons11-5, Super Bowl LI loss49-66, 1 playoff win
2016 Oakland Raiders12-4, 2016 Wild Card loss49-66, 0 playoff wins
2015 Carolina Panthers15-1, Super Bowl 50 loss48-83, 0 playoff wins
2015 Arizona Cardinals13-3, 2015 NFC Championship loss50-79, 0 playoff wins
2014 Indianapolis Colts11-5, 2014 AFC Championship loss70-76, 1 playoff win
2007 Los Angeles Chargers11-5, 2007 AFC Championship loss129-130, 3 playoff wins

Every situation is different. In some cases, the departure or regression from a future Hall of Fame quarterback influenced the decline. For others, season-ending injuries one year led to a downward spiral and ultimately resulted in roster and coaching changes that altered the original club’s identity.

That’s the point and is exactly why Campbell warned his players that they may not return. Detroit avoided the devastating season-ending injuries in 2023, but it might not in 2024. The Lions’ coaching staff might change dramatically and the roster certainly will.

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Examining the Detroit Lions’ future

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Credit: Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The good news for Detroit is that its young core remains in place. David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs are under team control through at least the next two seasons, as are Jameson Williams, Sam LaPorrta, Aidan Hutchinson and Brian Branch.

Detroit also doesn’t necessarily have to worry too much about its upcoming free agents. While the Lions’ front office will try and retain some of their impending free agents, there isn’t a “building block” player they need to fear losing right now.

Detroit Lions free agents

C.J. Gardner Johnson, DBJulian Okwara, LB
Romeo Okwara, DEHalapoulivaati Vaitai, iOL
Charles Harris. DEJonah Jackson, iOL
Emmanuel Moseley, CBGraham Glasgow, iOL
Josh Reynolds, WRWill Harris, S

The core group is returning in 2024 and that allows the Lions to remain playoff contenders, challenging for the NFC North crown once more. However, our focus is also on Detroit’s long-term future. Both what this offense will look like when it loses Ben Johnson and how Detroit builds around its future star-heavy roster.

The Lions would certainly be wise to use some of their 2024 cap space on contract extensions. Detroit’s free agents in 2025 include Jared Goff, Amon-Ra St. Brown, Taylor Decker, Alim McNeil and Ifeatu Melifonwu. Beyond that, Aidan Hutchinson and Penei Sewell will soon demand contract extensions to become some of the highest-paid NFL players.

In terms of annual average salaries, the Lions will have to commit $45-plus million to Goff, $20-plus million to Decker and St. Brown and then eventually $25-plus million to Sewell and Hutchinson. The window of having outstanding, young talent on rookie-level contracts is closing.

When you look at the best NFL rosters in 2023, many of them (Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals) had the benefit of their quarterbacks still carrying a low cap hit, allowing them to pay up at other positions. With Goff’s deal expiring after 2024, paired with the other looming extensions, Detroit won’t have that luxury.

The critical factor that leaves the door open for Detroit’s sustained success is general manager Brad Holmes. As his 2023 NFL Draft class can attest to, he’s done an excellent job finding talent in just about every round. He’s also willing to be aggressive with trades. However, external factors must also be considered for the Lions.

NFC North on the Rise

While the Minnesota Vikings still need to figure out their long-term quarterback situation, the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers are set. Jordan Love played like a top-10 quarterback in the second half of the regular season, even with one of the youngest receiving corps in NFL history.

Green Bay made the playoffs with the youngest NFL team in 2023, all in a year when it was absorbing the Aaron Rodgers’ cap hit. Now, the Packers head into the offseason with premium draft capital in 2024 and over $95 million of cap space in 2025. The Packers are in that window of benefitting from having a lot of young talent on rookie-level contracts, providing them with tons of flexibility.

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As for the Bears, they had a top-10 defense in the second half of the season with Matt Eberflus calling plays. Now, offensive coordinator Shane Waldron will take the reigns of an offense led by either Caleb Williams or Drake Maye paired with D.J. Moore and Cole Kmet. Plus, the Bears have the most 2024 NFL Draft capital, $50 million of cap space this year and $125 million in 2025. In short, the NFC North is about to be a lot more competitive for a very talented Lions team.

Ben Johnson’s eventual departure

Whether it happens in 2024 or 2025, Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson will be taking a head-coaching job somewhere. The Lions’ offensive line will help lessen the blow, protecting Goff from his most glaring weakness (pressure). With that said, regression is pretty standard for a team after it loses one of the top coordinators in football.

Regression after losing a top play-caller

Before DepartureAfter
San Francisco 49ers defense (DeMeco Ryans)40.9% Success Rate (1st)43.1% Success Rate (15th)
Philadelphia Eagles offense (Shane Steichen)28.1 PPG (3rd)25.5 PPG (7th)
Tennessee Titans offense (Arthur Smith)30.7 PPG (4th)24.6 PPG (15th)
Chicago Bears defense (Vic Fangio)-0.135 EPA per Play (1st)-0.047 EPA per Play (8th)
Atlanta Falcons offense (Kyle Shanahan)33.8 PPG (1st)22.1 PPG (15th)
Washington Commanders offense (Sean McVay)24.8 PPG (12th)21.4 PPG (16th)
EPA per Play = Expected Points Added per Play. EPA measures how well a team performs over expectations on a snap-by-snap basis.

While we do believe the Lions’ offensive line and skill players around Goff will prevent this offense from experiencing significant regression, Goff’s efficiency will likely take a hit and even losing a few points per game could cost the Lions one or two more games.

Detroit can essentially run it back in 2024 with a majority of the same cast that got them to the NFC Championship Game, but the NFC North will be stronger and we could see year-to-year improvements from the Atlanta Falcons, Seattle Seahawks and Philadelphia Eagles.

The Lions can still make the playoffs in 2024 and should be favored to win the NFC North, but reaching the NFC title game might’ve been this franchise’s peak with Campbell and Goff. Unfortunately for the fan base, that’s what makes the turnovers and Campbell’s mistakes all the more painful.

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