Wojo: Lions counting on fiery Dan Campbell to lead them out of disarray

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
| The Detroit News

Dan Campbell is not a strategic guru. He’s not an offense guy or a defense guy or a system guy. No, the Lions are trying to break the mold with their new head coach, hiring a command-the-room type of guy.

A franchise that has lacked a strong leader for too long, hopes it just landed someone with precisely that trait. Before a team can build a new culture, it needs new philosophies, and with the hirings of Campbell and GM Brad Holmes, the Lions did something unorthodox. They didn’t follow previous patterns, which is a good thing, considering their history. They also didn’t bring in highly touted men with vast experience, which is the concerning thing.

Campbell reportedly signed a six-year contract Wednesday, coming from New Orleans where he coached the tight ends and was Sean Payton’s assistant head coach. Other notable credential: He served as the Dolphins’ interim head coach in 2015 and went 5-7, so he’s not devoid of experience. Other notable but inconsequential credential: He was a tight end (injured most of the season) on the Lions’ 0-16 team in 2008.

Campbell at least knows what he’s getting into, as the Lions try yet another experiment. This time, they were much more thorough, interviewing 12 GM candidates and six head-coach candidates, and not simply listening to the advice of others. Owner Sheila Ford Hamp and president Rod Wood are asking fans to trust the process, interesting from a team that made “complete the process” an unfortunate part of NFL lore. It will take a while to complete this process, with a 5-11 team devoid of talent and direction, whose best player is a soon-to-be 33-year-old quarterback nearing the end of his contract.

The Lions, by most accounts, picked good people. As always, it’s unclear if they picked the right structure.

Holmes, 41, is sharp and analytical and ran eight NFL drafts for the Rams. He also wisely didn’t publicly tie himself to Matthew Stafford, although he said good things. Campbell, 44, is feisty and frank, the one likely to stir things up while Holmes settles things down.

Collaboration elaboration

At least this isn’t the Patriots Way, or the Rams Way, or the Saints Way. This is a melding of disparate personalities, each hired independently of the other. That will be considered a mistake by some: Why didn’t the GM name his coach?

Fair question. Others can cite the example of Bob Quinn and Matt Patricia, who were borne of the Patriots system and joined at the hip, and spent three strife-ridden years together in last place. Players clashed with coaches, who clashed with the GM, who clashed with others in the building. Quinntricia was a fiefdom within a team, built on ego and arrogance.

Those wounds clearly were fresh, as Hamp, Wood and Holmes must have used the word “collaboration” a dozen times at Holmes’ opening news conference Tuesday. Again, that raises some concerns. For instance, Wood said neither Holmes nor the head coach would have “final say” on roster issues. Decisions would be “collaborative,” involving vice president of football operations Mike Disner as well, with all reporting to Hamp and Wood.

If it works, this is how it would work: Holmes would use his seasoned savvy as director of college scouting for the Rams to pluck talent, and Campbell would use his imposing personality (and size, at 6-5, 265) to rally and lead the team. Campbell was with the Saints for five seasons and the Dolphins for six seasons, and when he was named the interim in Miami in 2015, he laid out his coaching philosophy.

“We have plenty of talent in this building, we have enough to win,” he said then. “We have to change the culture, I have to change the culture, and that’s what I intend to do. And what that means is, we need to become a more aggressive front, or a team in general. We need to bring the culture of competitiveness, finish, and intensity. To me that’s where it all starts.”

Just in case the Dolphins players weren’t sure what it meant, Campbell conducted the infamous “Oklahoma drill” in his first practice. It’s a high-impact, one-on-one contact drill that since has been banned by the NFL. Patricia implemented a variation of it in his first training camp here before it was banned.

Miami players lauded Campbell for his energetic, fast-paced practices and for trying to change things in a short amount of time. He rearranged the locker room to put all position groups together. His hard-driving ways were reflected in his favorite band, Metallica. He took down the inspirational signs in the team’s auditorium and explained why.

“Everybody in sports sees coaches using those signs,” Campbell said then. “The problem is, after a while, the same sign is still sitting there. And it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

To survive 11 years in the NFL as a marginal tight end, self-motivation has to be huge. So does adaptability. The tight end position, especially as a blocker, basically is a hybrid of an offensive lineman and a receiver. You have to understand both disciplines, and also be in sync with the quarterback.

Maybe that’s why Campbell is difficult to peg, not tied to one system or one style. That led to the downfall of Quinn and Patricia, who sought specific types to fit their system, something Holmes wants to avoid.

“I never had a preference of, ‘He’s got to be an offensive coach, he’s got to be a defensive coach, he’s got to run this system, he’s got to run that system,’” Holmes said. “My No. 1 core traits were, first of all, he’s got to be a leader of men. 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.”

Melding of new minds

Holmes was hired for his drafting skills, and that’s where the Lions must be built. Yes, that means “rebuilt,” even if Holmes doesn’t want to use the word. That means the Lions will get younger, and without a bevy of stars on the roster, Campbell must provide impactful leadership. Strong offensive and defensive coordinators will be needed for strategy and play-calling.

Campbell talks tough, but don’t mistake that for meat-headedness. He communicates well, according to those who played for him. And you don’t work as Payton’s right-hand man without knowing the intricacies of the game. He’s just more passionate when discussing the intricacies of practice.

“It gets heated, it’s intense, it’s people fighting to win,” Campbell said in Miami. “It’s not just going through the motions. To me, that’s what’s got to change, we’ll start there. The Xs and Os will come later.”

We have no idea how compatible Campbell and Holmes will be because they’re just getting to know each other. It’s risky, but it’s also a clean slate. One area of commonality is their emphasis on intangibles and intuitiveness.

If Holmes can deliver the talent, Campbell will be entrusted with getting the most out of it. What he said at his opening news conference in Miami might ring just as true here.

“What made me qualified?” Campbell said in 2015. “I feel like I relate to the players, I feel like I’m somebody that understands them. I feel I’ve always been one who can pull the best out of people. That doesn’t mean I’m their best friend. But I understand what it’s like, I’ve been at the top, been at the bottom. I understand what it’s like to hit that roller coaster.”

It’s Campbell’s first full-time head-coaching job, but not his first ride. The Lions always provide a well-worn roller coaster, and the hope is, Campbell is truly comfortable in the lead car.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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