Universal bewilderment from loud media voices met the signing of free agent David Montgomery, and even more exclamatory doubts and darts followed when the Detroit Lions used their first-round pick in the 2023 draft to select Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs.
Lions head coach Dan Campbell’s reaction each time was identical: You must have no clue who we are. But even Gibbs admitted he was “shocked” to be selected 12th in the draft.
Foresight not withstanding, general manager Brad Holmes and Campbell appear to have earned their sagacious stickers. Gibbs was one of four Lions with 10 touchdowns this season with 11, and 1,261 yards from scrimmage. Second-round rookie tight end Sam LaPorta had a record-setting season, too, perhaps sending rooms of armchair draftniks back to their grading charts from April.
“I’m just going to bring it back to Brad Holmes. It’s a hell of a job by him once again. He took a lot of criticism for those picks. But they look like they are OK. I’m glad we got them,” Campbell said.
Campbell also knows what his team has to do Sunday to beat the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game in Santa Clara, Calif.
“You’ve got to stop the run because if you don’t, they’ll rush for 250 (yards) on you and then they won’t even worry about passing,” he said.
Not that top-seeded San Francisco isn’t capable of passing. It led the NFL in yards per pass play (8.93) and pass plays of 20 yards or more with 75. Worry too much about All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey and you get burned by Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk.
Campbell does believe that by stopping McCaffrey, who rushed for 1,459 yards and scored 14 touchdowns while contributing 67 receptions and seven more touchdowns, the 49ers are like any other team that becomes one-dimensional: Their margin for error diminishes.
Midseason losses to Cleveland, Minnesota and Cincinnati exposed that weakness. McCaffrey managed only 43, 45 and 54 yards in those games. Quarterback Brock Purdy tossed five interceptions and was sacked a half-dozen times.
Purdy noted Wednesday that he benefits from a good running game and the element of deception. He’s extremely good in those circumstances, and the 49ers were very committed to the running game. They were third in the NFL with 140.5 rushing yards per game — Detroit was fifth at 135.9.
Purdy led a last-ditch drive in the divisional round that eliminated Green Bay 24-21. He converted first downs with his legs and arm on a 69-yard drive that culminated with McCaffrey’s 6-yard touchdown run with 1:07 remaining.
That happened despite the loss of Samuel, who left last week’s game in the first half with a shoulder injury and didn’t return. Samuel, who didn’t practice on Wednesday, caught seven touchdown passes and ran for five more scores while accounting for 1,117 yards from scrimmage.
49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was tight-lipped when asked about Samuel’s availability for Sunday, saying only, “He feels better.”
Third-seeded Detroit is playing in its first NFC title game in 32 seasons. Campbell looked around his news conference on Wednesday and noticed a lot of unfamiliar faces, ready to chronicle every word and facial tic from the coach of perhaps the league’s most appealing story.
“Most of the time I come in here, there’s about 20 of you,” he said. “Now there’s a whole packed room, people I don’t even recognize. That’s what our players are dealing with; it’s all the extra attention outside of the norm. They’re getting pulled from every area.”
Winning does that. The Lions keep winning games and reaching uncharted territory. Last week’s 31-23 decision over Tampa Bay saw them snap a 17-17 tie with two touchdowns following long drives in the fourth quarter.
Detroit played a clean game with no turnovers and just three penalties for 17 yards. With Jared Goff throwing for 287 yards and two touchdowns, and Gibbs rolling up 114 yards from scrimmage, the Lions are proving they know exactly who they are.