There are plenty of reasons to like Dan Campbell as a prospective head coaching candidate for the Lions.
“So Ash, when’s the 3800-word post about Dan Campbell coming?” This is the sort of grief I get from our beloved Patreon Slack chat. Y’all know I’m not getting paid for this right? With that said, what’s the old quote: “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life?” Alright, internet friends, I’m not working today so let’s do this. Why are the Lions looking at hiring Dan Campbell, a position coach who has never been a coordinator, as their head coach? (Don’t worry, this is not 3800 words long).
This really is not that difficult of a question to answer at the surface level but I’ll go deeper than that. Dan Campbell was a hard-nosed player, and intense on-field leader despite not being the best player on the 53 man roster. He played for the Giants after he went in round three of the draft, then signed as a free agent with the Cowboys before manning a spot on the Lions roster from 2006-2008. Yes, he was briefly a part of the legendary 0-16 team. Unlike most of that roster, however, he found another gig after that year with the Saints.
Campbell was not the modern type of tight end. He wasn’t a basketball player who was there to make receptions in the red zone and look pretty walking off the bus. Dan Campbell was a blocking tight end, the guy who comes out to the field when everyone in the stadium knows that the play is going to be a run. He played 134 NFL games, and he had a total of 934 career receiving yards. He started for the Giants, but they had no interest in throwing him the ball. Regardless, when Bill Parcells took over the Cowboys in 2003, one of his first moves was signing Campbell. Jason Whitten kept Campbell from the spotlight as the iconic Cowboys tight end began his Hall of Fame-caliber career. Campbell, however, gained notoriety as the toughest SOB on the team. In 2005, for example, Campbell missed only 10 days of preseason practices as he recovered from an appendectomy. He did not even miss a single preseason game. The Cowboys valued Campbell’s blocking so much that he is listed as a starter for 12 games as they used the second tight end rather than a fullback in 2005.
In 2006, with the Lions, Campbell put up career highs in receiving yards and touchdowns (308 and 4). In 2007 he went on IR in September. In 2008 he went on IR September. In 2009 he was on IR before the preseason ended for the Saints. In 2010 Campbell was a coaching intern for the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano had been the tight ends coach for the Cowboys during Campbell’s time with the team. After one year he promoted Campbell to that same role with the Dolphins. In Campbell’s first year overseeing the position, the Dolphins drafted Charles Clay in the sixth round. Clay developed into a solid 40 catch, 600-700 yard contributor under the tutelage of Coach Campbell by 2013. Campbell was retained by Joe Philbin when the Dolphins fired Sparano after the 2011 season. Philbin was a complete mess as a head coach, and in 2015 when the Dolphins realized that after a 1-3 start, the man they turned to for their death march to the offseason was… five-year coaching veteran Dan Campbell. Under Campbell, the Dolphins went 3-2 in their next five games. The Dolphins roster was not good enough to ride the wave of excitement for the rest of the season, however, and the team ended their time under Campbell at 5-7. Campbell did not do it the same way that Darrell Bevell did here in Detroit, however as is illustrated in the video below.
Dan Campbell the Dolphins Interim Head Coach
The Dolphins that played the last 12 games of 2015 were a team that nobody wanted to play. John Breech of CBS Sports described them as the “we’ll punch you in the mouth and kick you while your down” team. Just to clarify that error was his not mine. As the interim head coach of the Dolphins, Campbell did not pull punches. He fired the team’s defensive coordinator and promoted the team’s DBs coach. He also hired Al Saunders to be the “senior offensive assistant. He had a bunch of coaches who probably felt the same way most Lions fans did when they first heard Campbell’s name: “Why this guy?” And Campbell’s performance as the team’s coach showed them why. He began his first practice as Dolphins head coach with the Oklahoma drill. He moved the players’ lockers around to break up cliques that had formed in the room. I am going to be real honest here when I say that sort of thing sounds real familiar to someone who’s been paying close attention to the Detroit Lions for the last few seasons. I don’t think anyone who asked whether that was what the Lions really need in 2021 is being unreasonable.
There is a huge difference here. When Matt Patricia walked into the Lions locker room and pulled that crap, he was walking into a team coming off back to back 9-7 seasons, a team that was 36-28 over the previous four years with the same veteran core of players. Campbell was walking into a team expected to make the jump after an 8-8 season and an offseason where a pile of high-priced free agents, Ndamukong Suh for example, came on board. Campbell was dealing with a team that dropped 3/4 games to start the year because they had decided they were great before the games started.
The other key difference between what we just had and what we’d be getting with Campbell is that the Matt Patricia we heard about years later as former Lions became sometimes disturbingly comfortable ripping the coach wasn’t the Matt Patricia we heard about from Patriots players. Some who have actually met Patricia paint a very different picture of the coach than the players in the room do. Dan Campbell is who he is. In quarantine, he makes his kids watch tape with him. But Campbell is not all sharp angles and hard surfaces. The Dolphins defense had been utilizing its resources poorly. Ndamukong Suh had been asked to play a two gap nose tackle role similar to what Lions fans saw from Danny Shelton in 2020. Suh can do that, but it’s a little like showing up to a tractor pull with a muscle car. It is not what the man was put on this earth to do. The refusal to deploy players in a way that made sense based on their ability rather than to fit the scheme was why Campbell eventually fired both his offensive and defensive coordinators during that 2015 season.
Here is what Sean Payton said about Campbell upon hearing that his former TE was now a rival head coach: “He’s a fantastic guy, a great worker, a great teammate. He is someone that’s tough, strong. I can’t say enough good things.” Former teammate, and then Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said of Campbell: “I think somehow some way he’s going to help that football team get righted and he’s going to do it because he’s a really willfully guy.” Garrett continued that Campbell “knew the game well, knew it beyond his position,” and added that Campbell “had a great passion for the game.” Campbell is a good hearted force of personality.
The Dan Campbell who became a hard-nosed head coach was the same guy who had been the hard-nosed position coach, who was the same guy that had been a hard-nosed player in the league. This is absolutely 100% who Dan Campbell is, in the same way, that Matt Patricia was not the same person as his coaching persona. Players also know that Campbell has done everything he will ever ask them to do, and the previous Lions head coach did not have that level of credibility when he walked in the door. It doesn’t matter for every coach, but it does matter for in your face style coaches like Dan Campbell and Matt Patricia. The only league award Campbell ever won as a player was the Ed Block Courage Award. This award is for being a role model and providing inspiration, sportsmanship, and courage. This is who Dan Campbell is, not how he thinks he needs to act.
Dan Campbell the Assistant Head Coach
Dan Campbell’s first three years as the Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach involved scraping the bottom of the personnel barrel to find effective players. Coby Fleener, Michael Hoomanawanui, Josh Hill, and 38-year-old Benjamin Watson were the players he had to work with, and the Saints offense did just fine. In 2019 the Saints picked up Jared Cook, and Campbell helped take a player who had never caught more than 6 TDs in a season to 16 in two years. As a position coach, his resume is outstanding. He has continually done more with less during his time in the NFL. That former offensive coordinators turned head coaches have been ecstatic to hire him speaks well of him too.
The assistant head coach is a nebulous position. We don’t really know what Campbell does other than a lot more media appearances than a standard position coach. But the head coach does not have to be a coordinator. In fact, many believe that a head coach should not be the team’s play-caller on either side of the ball because that frees them up to handle the bigger picture issues rather than prepping for the next drive. If that’s the case someone like Campbell who understands the game but does not control it on game day in his current position is a solid choice to become a head coach.
Dan Campbell is a leader of men. He is a rah rah type of guy who walks exactly the type of game he talks. He’s in the weight room every day too, taking care of his body alongside the guys. There is zero chill in Dan Campbell, which makes it very easy to picture him working alongside someone like Chris Spielman. Heck, if you throw in Ed Dodds, the Lions brain trust would be the most driven and uncompromising group ever assembled. I would almost expect wrestling matches to break out on draft day over personnel decisions. And they’d be able to bench more than any other front office.
It is impossible to tell if that is the recipe for dragging the Lions organization out of the smoldering ashes of the wreck that was the Quinntricia era, but it is definitely different in small ways that really do matter. There is a reason Dan Campbell is being considered for multiple head coaching positions every year. He has an old school mentality, but a new age methodology. He is in it with the guys, not lording over them. He is the battlefield level leader of men that Matt Patricia just was not. That is why he could make a great head coach in the NFL.
Ash Thompson is a substitute teacher in Edmonton. He enjoys long walks in the snow, and smoked meat tacos. He also enjoys writing about football, no matter what he says at the beginning of his articles.