Detroit Lions taking big gamble with Dan Campbell; at least their plan seems clear

Detroit Free Press

Jeff Seidel
| Detroit Free Press

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We have seen all kinds of Detroit Lions regimes. But this feels totally different.

How all the pieces have come together.

The Lions didn’t hire the people’s choice to be their next head coach. Robert Saleh, from Dearborn, was scooped up by the New York Jets.

The Lions didn’t go with the familiar. Darrell Bevel, the Lions interim coach, interviewed for the job but didn’t get it.

SHAWN WINDSOR: Brad Holmes wants fans to ‘trust the process’; how long will they trust him?

They didn’t jump for the hot assistant coach. The Lions interviewed Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy but he didn’t get it.

The Lions didn’t go with experience. The Lions interviewed Marvin Lewis, who won 131 games with the Cincinnati Bengals. But Lewis also lost 122 and was 0-7 in the postseason.


They went in a totally surprising direction (until the news has leaked out over the last few days), and they have signed Dan Campbell, a former Lion, to be their next coach

Campbell is not known as an Xs and Os guru. He has never been a coordinator. And his only head coaching experience was as an interim coach in Miami in 2015 when the Dolphins went 5-7.

More than anything, Campbell is known as a leader of men. A motivator. Someone who can get a team to unite.

Which makes sense, to go in that direction, after the fractures of the Matt Patricia era.

The Parcells way

There are all kinds of leaders.

The Lions appear to have picked one in Chris Spielman’s image.

Tough. Hard nosed. Old school.

The kind of coach who ordered up Oklahoma drills in Miami to instill physical toughness. Which is interesting. When was the last time you described the Lions as being big hitters or even tougher than the opposition?

[ Lions hire Campbell as coach and fans have gripes, jokes and a little bit of hope ]

Campbell is the kind of guy who will instill discipline by making players run to the fence and back if you jump offsides during training camp. Which seems promising. When was the last time you described the Lions as being disciplined?

Campbell is from the Bill Parcells tree. He played under Parcells for three seasons with the Dallas Cowboys. And Campbell has coached under New Orleans coach Sean Payton, who worked under Parcells  in Dallas.

One thing Campbell learned under Parcells: You can have a set style but you have to adjust to win games.

“You can’t use the same thing to win every game,” Campbell said on “The LiucciCast” podcast, hosted by Texas A&M writer Billy Liucci. “You can have a philosophy. But not every opponent is the same. You have to judge each opponent, what they have and what you have and what the matchup is like different every week. Sometimes, what beat that team isn’t what’s gonna beat this team this week. I know it sounds like, that’s common sense. But I’m telling you, not everybody knows how to handle that.”

‘A leader of men’

When new Lions general manager Brad Holmes was asked what he wants to look for in a coach, he gave an answer that described Campbell.

MORE SEIDEL: Why Brad Holmes and the Lions’ unconventional front office just might work

“He’s got to be a leader of men,” Holmes said Tuesday at his introductory news conference. “He’s got to have presence and within that presence, he’s got to have poise. He has to have confidence. He has to have command. He has to have mental toughness. He has to have intelligence, and I stress the mental toughness part because there will be ups and downs where that stress tolerance has to be at the right level, and to be able to persevere through those moments.”

[ Lions GM Brad Holmes will ‘collaborate’ with new coach on building roster ]

And that pretty much sums up how people describe Campbell, who played in the NFL for 11 seasons and has coached for another 11.

But that playing and coaching experience should serve him well.

Campbell has seen what doesn’t work — he was a member of the 2008 Lions that went 0-16.

But he has also seen what works. He played in the Super Bowl twice, losing with the Giants in 2000 and then winning with the Saints in 2009.

Campbell values hard work, discipline and intensity — all the things he saw in Drew Brees the first time he met him.

“Wow, here is the alpha,” Campbell said on the podcast. “This dude is the alpha. Just the way he talked and his intensity. This is what it’s about man. If everybody had his intensity and approach, you wouldn’t fail.”

Can’t do it alone

Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp has taken a swing for the fences by making this regime change.

WINDSOR: Ford Hamp has a vision. She knows exactly what it sounds like.

Hoping Holmes turns into the next great GM.

Hoping Campbell is the next Mike Vrabel, the Tennessee Titans coach.

But being a great leader is not enough.

And Vrabel has not done it alone. One of the secrets of Vrabel’s success has been his hiring track record. In his first season, Vrabel hired Matt LaFleur to be his offensive coordinator. LaFleur created the NFL’s No. 7 ranked rushing attack (126.4 yards per game). Of course, having Derrick Henry helps.

After one season, LaFleur left to become the Green Bay Packers head coach.

So Vrable turned the offense over to Arthur Smith for two seasons and the Titans produced pure magic. Henry won consecutive NFL rushing titles.

So you have to give Vrabel credit for putting coaches in the right spots.

And the same pressure will now fall on Campbell.

He has to hire the right offensive and defensive coordinators.

There are reports that Campbell will hire Saints defensive backs coach Aaron Glenn to be his defensive coordinator.

And Campbell had better get this right. If Campbell doesn’t surround himself with the right staff, this whole thing could blow up once again.

‘You have to be willing to listen’

Campbell might be a hard nosed coach.

But he talks like he has a flexible style.

“You have to be able to adjust to the athlete of today,” he said on the podcast.

And it starts with communication.

“It’s just different,” he said on the podcast. “And these kids were raised different, and they have different experiences than we did 20 years ago and those before us.

“I think so much of it is, like back then, you do what you’re told to do, period. And that’s how you get better, and that’s all you knew, and it was black and white. And it was, ‘Man, you do this and if you don’t do this, we’ve got a problem with you and your team’s got a problem with you.’

“And with that, you lump all those things in a basket and sometimes things get lost. You lose good players, because — you know what — he’s got a damn rock in his shoe, and he doesn’t know how to communicate that, and so no wonder he’s limping around.”

“You have to be willing to listen to these (guys), and I feel like, there needs to be more of working relationship with your athletes, certainly at the NFL level. These are grown men that we’re dealing with. So like I always approach it as we are working together.”

And that is what the Lions are trying to build in their organization.

Of course, you would feel a heck of a lot better if either Holmes or Campbell had more experience.

But that’s the risk. I give Hamp credit for trying to create something new. It would have been easy to hire a GM with experience, or a coach with experience, or the hot name just to make the fans happy.

[ Holmes: Lions job will be a retooling, not a long-term rebuild ]

But she didn’t. She followed a different plan, hiring a 41-year-old GM and 44-year-old coach, hoping for a big payoff and long-term success.

Hamp’s vision is now clear: she is trying to build an organization that is cohesive and collaborative, placing a huge emphasis on finding talent, while creating a football team that is tough, disciplined and mentally strong.

Right now, those are all just buzz words. We’ll have to wait and see if it works.

But I like what the Lions have done — in theory — to try to reach that goal.

They have brought in a general manager with a track record of finding players in the draft.

And they have hired a well-respected, hard-nosed leader as their next head coach.

It’s certainly new and different but everything is tied together.

Campbell won’t succeed if Holmes doesn’t find players.

And Holmes won’t succeed if Campbell doesn’t hire the right staff and push the right buttons, while growing into the job.

It’s a massive risk with a tremendous upside.

As well as a huge downside.

Even though this feels new and different, if they fail, they will go down together.

And if that happens, Hamp will look a lot like her father.

Contact Jeff Seidel: Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to

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