Dan Campbell wouldn’t be a home run for Detroit Lions. But he wouldn’t be a Hail Mary

Detroit Free Press

Carlos Monarrez
 
| Detroit Free Press

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Now that the Detroit Lions have hired general manager Brad Holmes, their focus shifts squarely to hiring the 29th coach in franchise history.

You know what they say: 29th time’s a charm.

Last week, I wrote about the GM candidates who would be home run hires for the Lions. This week, I don’t feel that same conviction about the coaching candidates. I don’t see anything close to a home run. Not even a triple. Maybe not even an extra-base hit.

Even when Dearborn native Robert Saleh was supposedly a favorite, I had concerns. Didn’t the Lions just try an unproven head coach acclaimed as a defensive guru who was respected and beloved by his former players? Good luck, Jets.

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And what about Eric Bieniemy? He’s the offensive coordinator in Kansas City but he doesn’t call plays. But he does stand next to Andy Reid, the true genius of the Chiefs’ operation.

So let’s pause for a second and consider what we know about the Lions’ GM and coaching dynamic and what the team has expressed about its preference.

Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp wrote in a memo to employees in December she wanted a “proven head coach/GM team.” Well, that means the coach is going to have to be the proven one since Holmes is a far cry from being a proven GM.

I understand Hamp’s logic. But I don’t agree with it. If she truly believes Holmes, 41, is ready for this big step from college scouting director to GM, then he shouldn’t require the training wheels provided by an ex-head coach who in all likelihood is a failed ex-head coach.

But if we take Hamp at her word and apply the most literal definition of a “proven” head coach, that answer can only be Marvin Lewis.

And before I go any further, let me stop and offer this plea to Hamp. If she promises not to hire Lewis, I’ll clean and detail her private jet. I’ll power wash her superyacht. I’ll landscape her private island.

In 16 seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, Lewis had a 131-122-3 record with seven winning seasons and an 0-7 playoff record. Yep, proven all right. Proven as the embodiment of coaching mediocrity. He wasn’t fired earlier in his tenure because owner Mike Brown was either too cheap or too clueless to swing the ax.

But if Hamp is willing to settle for a candidate with any head coaching experience, then we’re talking about New Orleans Saints assistant head coach and tight ends coach Dan Campbell, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles or — brace yourself — Lions interim head coach Darrell Bevell. (The Lions and Bowles canceled his in-person interview for Friday since “indications were he wasn’t going to be their next head coach.”)

The combined record of Campbell and Bevell as head coaches, both as interims: 6-11.

Bevell’s interview with the Lions supposedly “went really well.” But after a 1-4 record in the final part of the season filled with drama and discord, it’s hard to imagine the Lions would hire someone unpopular with the fan base and seen as  a contributor to a failed regime.

And that leaves us with Campbell, who went 5-7 as the Miami Dolphins’ interim coach in 2015. I covered Campbell when he was a tight end with the Lions from 2006-08. His body was breaking down but he put together one final good year in ’06, when he wore a huge Robocop brace on his right elbow and played through an injury he suffered in the spring.

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Campbell didn’t like to talk, especially not about himself. Teammates even couldn’t get much information out of Campbell about his injury.

“I had to hold him down to ask him what the deal was,” quarterback Jon Kitna said at the time.

But coaches and teammates loved Campbell.

“He is just driven with passion of this game,” coach Rod Marinelli said then. “This guy is tough — quietly tough — on this team, as any guy on this football team. I admire that about him. He’s played with whatever. He doesn’t care.”

Mike Martz, the Lions offensive coordinator back then, had the highest praise for Campbell.

“He’s why you coach,” Martz said. “He’s salt of the earth. He’s the athlete and the person that you build a football team around.”

What does this mean for Campbell’s success as a potential head coach? Sadly, not much. Most new coaches not named Todd Haley join teams because their teammates and former coaches vouch vociferously for them.

But if you want to know what this means for Campbell’s chances be the Lions’ coach, that’s a different. It means a lot because he’s similar to Chris Spielman, the new Lions adviser who is helping guide the search and hire. If Campbell talks to Spielman about “tackling with your eyes” or the benefits of a neck roll, it’s all over.

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I remember being impressed with Campbell when he was a tight end coach with the Dolphins in 2012, the year they were on HBO’s “Hard Knocks.” He had a commanding but fair presence, even when he chewed out one of his players during a preseason game.

“The ones who can bounce back are the ones who can play solid in the league,” he said, according to Bleacher Report. “That’s what you’ve got to do. Put it behind you.”

That would mesh really well with Holmes, who told Yahoo.com in 2019 these are traits he looks for in college players: “Does he have a mental toughness when things go bad? Can he bounce back? Can he persevere? … That’s the separation when you get to this level.”

Lions new GM Brad Holmes is an exciting hire who wants ‘game wreckers’ ]

I’m pretty sure the Lions feel they missed out on Mike Vrabel when they hired Patricia, and they might look at Campbell as their Vrabel. While there’s no perfect candidate, Campbell checks a lot of boxes.

There’s another thing. And we have to be real about it: This franchise is in the nascent stages of a rebuild and a realignment under a new owner and a new regime who want a new direction and a new culture. That means you can rule out quick fixes and immediate success. Forget it.

I normally hate it when coaches and GMs talk about “the process.” That’s code for “don’t get your hopes up any time soon.” But in this case, it’s going to be true.

THE OWNER: Lions’ Sheila Ford Hamp has a vision, knows exactly what it sounds like

Who knows what success Holmes and the new coach will have? I can only guarantee we’re going to have to be patient and, indeed, let their process play out for a few years before demanding results.

I don’t think Campbell would be a home run hire that leads to instant success. But at least he won’t be a Hail Mary.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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