From ‘kneecaps’ speech to NFC title game: Lions’ Decker on 8 wild years in Detroit

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DETROIT — Tears rolled down the face of Detroit Lions left tackle Taylor Decker on Christmas Eve 2023. His present had arrived early.

With his Lions teammates celebrating the franchise’s first division title in three decades, the 6-foot-7, 318-pound Decker, sitting inside his stall in the visitor’s locker room at Minnesota’s U.S. Bank Stadium, took in the moment.

“Once it was realized, it’s just a flood of emotions that you didn’t even know was there,” Decker explained afterwards. “Kind of an overwhelming, in a good way, experience.”

For Decker, who in his ninth year is the Lions’ longest-tenured player, the road to becoming NFC North champions for the first time since 1993, and later coming a win shy of the team’s first Super Bowl berth, was an unforgettable experience.

Selected 16th overall in the 2016 draft out of Ohio State, Decker’s 112 starts are 32 more than any other Lions player in that span. He has played for four head coaches — Jim Caldwell, Matt Patricia, Darrell Bevell (interim) and Dan Campbell — in a career that has seen lows (two three-win seasons and two head coach firings) and highs (2023’s run to the NFC Championship Game).

A respected veteran on a Lions team projected to contend for a Super Bowl in 2024, Decker took time with ESPN to reflect on his Motown journey.

April 28, 2016: The Lions select Decker with the 16th overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Decker: I knew Detroit was one of the teams that might draft me. But even though there’s all the projections, you’re still nervous. I remember [former Lions general manager] Bob Quinn when he drafted me, I was his first draft pick, which I’ll also never forget. He was like, “You should be the next left tackle here for the next 10-15 years.” I took that to heart then, and I take that to heart now. So, it’s really cool seeing your dreams unfold and happen right in front of your eyes.

Rookie season: Under Caldwell, Detroit finishes 9-7 and reaches the playoffs in Decker’s first year. The Lions lose in the wild-card round to the Seattle Seahawks, 26-6.

Decker: I remember winning [so many] games on two-minute drills, coming from behind. And for a lineman, that’s about as hard as it gets, being in two-minute. But we seemed to always find a way to win. Well, not always, we were 9-7, but when we had the opportunity and had the ball, we were finding ways to win. And, just to have the opportunity to play in the playoffs, as a rookie, from my perspective, I was like, “Well, that should be the floor for expectations.”

Jan. 1, 2018: The Lions finish 9-7 again and fire Caldwell one day after the season ends. Caldwell, who had just completed his fourth season with the team, had signed an extension to remain in Detroit less than a year prior.

Decker: I loved Jim. I thought he was great. But they thought it was time for a change, and my job as a player isn’t to question that. My job is to say, “OK, let’s try to get a fresh start and try to move forward,” because every year there’s going to be change in this league. Coaches, players, staff and everything.

Feb. 5, 2018: The Lions announce Matt Patricia as the 27th head coach in franchise history. Patricia had spent his entire NFL coaching career with the New England Patriots.

Decker: I knew he was a hot head-coaching candidate that people wanted. I knew coming from the [former New England Patriots coach] Bill Belichick tree, it’s going to be a “hard work” tree, but I was familiar with that from college. That’s how [former Ohio State coach] Urban Meyer and [OSU strength coach] Mickey Marotti were in college. Like, “Yeah, we’re gonna be talented, but that’s not gonna substitute putting the time in to outwork your opponent.” So, I knew it was gonna be hard work for sure, but I wanted to win so I was willing to do anything. I remember after those first OTAs, it was harder than the previous ones.

Nov. 28. 2020: Midway through what will be their third straight season without a playoff berth, the Lions fire Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn. Patricia’s final record in Detroit is 13-29-1. Quinn, who had been the team’s GM since 2016, leaves the franchise with a 31-43-1 record.

Decker: The thing that was frustrating was that it can be hard to get a positive change when you’re getting wins here and there, but it didn’t seem like we were [improving], it felt like we were starting to dip. … It definitely lends credibility to the statement that it’s a cut-throat business. It’s not about your feelings all the time, whether your intentions were good or not. So, was I surprised initially? Yeah. But that’s just part of the business. It’s much like when Jim [Caldwell] got fired, and you’ve got to turn the page and we’ve got to go to the next thing because things weren’t where they needed to be around here. They thought it was time for a change.

January 2021: The Lions hire Dan Campbell as head coach. At his introductory news conference, he gives his an impassioned speech in which he discusses, among other things, biting opponents’ kneecaps.

Decker: I loved [the speech]. I thought it was great because he was wearing his heart on his sleeve and he was speaking — especially in hindsight, knowing what I know now — those were like core beliefs to him. Those were things that he truly and deeply believed in and wanted to do. And again, in hindsight, seeing that vision come to fruition is pretty cool, especially because I’m sure there were a lot of people that were like, “That’s not the coach we wanted.” I saw it everywhere, like “What are you doing hiring that guy?” And the charisma of being a head coach, being a leader of men, I liked his introductory press conference because he was kind of rough around the edges and you don’t always gotta be buttoned up. We fight for a living, that’s what we do, and he represents that and embodies that and the fact that he has walked the walk — he played 11 years — that lends credibility.

April 29. 2021: Detroit drafts offensive tackle Penei Sewell (No. 7 overall), defensive tackle Alim McNeill (No. 72) and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (No. 112). The trio become pillars to the Lions’ success in the following years.

Decker: I actually knew [the team would draft Sewell] before. They said, “If Penei’s on the board, we’re gonna take him.” I didn’t know much about him, but I was trusting [the front office]. In hindsight, they knocked it out of the park with those guys. So, it’s cool to see that, and it’s gotta be fun for [Lions GM] Brad [Holmes] to make a lot of his first picks, and he got it right.

2021 season: Detroit finishes 3-13-1 in Campbell’s first year as head coach.

Decker: We obviously did not have a good season, but from the leadership of the team, their message to us didn’t waver. It was the same: This is what we’re gonna do, and it’s gonna be really hard. We’re trying to dig ourselves out of the depths of the deepest hole where things were not good around here, so it’s gonna take some work, and it’s gonna take some time. It’s gonna be bumps in the road, and we’re gonna take some lumps, and it’s not gonna happen overnight. Even though the results weren’t there on the field, it did feel different.

April 28, 2022: Lions draft Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson No. 2 overall.

Decker: I knew a little more about him than I did Penei, because I watched Ohio State games. [Bringing Hutchinson to the team] is a match made in heaven. One thing about him and Penei is it doesn’t matter how they feel, how they slept, what’s going on, how well they’ve played, they’re going to go out there and do the exact same thing every day. That’s a commendable thing, especially as a high draft pick. And [the front office] did their homework to get guys to represent that because that’s what we do here.

Jan. 8, 2023: Detroit punctuates its 2022 season with a statement win over Aaron Rodgers and the Packers in the finale at Lambeau Field, denying Green Bay a playoff berth in the process. After a 1-6 start, the Lions won eight of their final 10 games to finish 9-8, their first winning season since 2017.

Decker: That made us feel like we were getting closer. So, it was turning from “Let’s go out here and compete really hard” to “Let’s try to start optimizing this thing and get those 3-4 plays that can make a big difference and really zero in on the details.” I think [the team] bringing in players where they didn’t have to coach effort was huge for us to be able to do that so quickly.

April 21, 2023: Four Lions players, including 2022 first-round pick Jameson Williams, are among five players league wide to be suspended for violating the NFL’s gambling policy. Williams was initially suspended for six games.

Decker: It’s like, “We’ve got to keep moving,” much like when coaches get changed or players get traded and stuff like that. It’s like a “Oh, damn, that sucks, but what are you gonna do?” … It just is what it is.

April 27, 2023: In one of the biggest Day 1 surprises, the Lions draft Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs 12th overall. They also select tight end Sam LaPorta in the second round. Both players make the Pro Bowl as rookies and become key cogs — along with St. Brown and Sewell — in the offense.

Decker: I think Brad [Holmes] has proven that positional value isn’t always a real thing. We’re gonna go get our guys that we know we can fit into certain spots, or we can do certain things with, or who represent what we’re about and will be good culture fits. I think they’ve nailed that a lot with culture fits. In hindsight, it’s like “of course you draft Jahmyr, like why wouldn’t you?”

Dec. 24, 2023: Detroit clinches its first division title since 1993 with a win over the Minnesota Vikings, ending the NFL’s second-longest active drought without a division title.

Decker: It was just cool to be a part of something like that. Monumental. Thirty years is a long time. …That was the first monkey-off-your-back moment. It was something that I hadn’t done. I think about it in my career that it took eight years, but it’s been 30. That’s pretty crazy and especially for it to happen as fast as it did [the journey from 3-13-1 to an NFC North title].

Jan. 14, 2024: At a raucous Ford Field, Detroit defeats former Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Rams to win the franchise’s first playoff game since 1991.

Decker: Loudest stadium I’ve ever been in, which then the next week it was louder after that. That game environment was incredible. You could feel all of that bottled up, pent up frustration from the fans in the city, and it’s just like, “I get to enjoy this, and this is incredible.” For us, it was like, “just get us in the playoffs and let us play anybody and we’re gonna be confident to go out there and try to win that football game.” Of course, it’s poetic with Matt coming back, but the opponent didn’t matter because it was about us and what we’re gonna do and this team. … It’s about something bigger than one player, one person, it’s about the Lions and the city and this organization.

Jan. 28, 2024: Playing in the franchise’s first NFC title game since 1991, the Lions lose 34-31 to the San Francisco 49ers in a game in which they held a 17-point lead at halftime.

Decker: It was one of these situations where we were trying to figure out how to make those 3, 4, 5 plays that can be big difference makers and we had been making those for most of the games we played in the season. For however well we played for 60 plays, there’s like five — or however much, I’m just throwing a number — that just didn’t go our way and those were big difference makers. … that just makes you go back in the Rolodex of what I could’ve done differently. … As much as it hurts to look back on — and it sucks — but for us, I don’t feel like it was our only shot. I don’t feel that way.

April 24, 2024: On the eve of Detroit hosting its first NFL draft, the Lions lock down St. Brown and Sewell with a pair of record-breaking deals. Nearly a month later, the Lions also extend QB Jared Goff.

Decker: You’ve got to keep your guys. Even if they’ve only been here for 3-4 years, this is all they’ve known, and it’s very meaningful to them, just like I’ve been here my whole career is very meaningful to me to be here, and I think they recognize that. These are our guys that unquestionably represent what we are about and want to be about. Who cares if it’s two years early, let’s keep them here.

Looking ahead to the 2024 season and beyond, who are the Lions going to be?

Decker: If I had to put it in one word, I would just say contender. I know it’s gonna be very hard, if not harder, than it was last year because people might do a little extra homework when they’re playing us, but just knowing the character of our locker room, that’s just what we, as a team, want to be about. And if you’re not trying to compete for championships, much like me taking pride in what I do, it’s like, ‘what are we doing here?’ This is all about winning. That’s what we’re here for and I think Brad and Dan have done it the right way for however long they’re gonna be here. That’s what we’re gonna be doing.



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