Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell’s philosophy sounds nice, but does it win in playoffs?

Detroit Free Press

Shawn Windsor
 
| Detroit Free Press

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The Detroit Lions new head coach, Dan Campbell, has never been a coordinator. He has never called plays, on either side of the ball. He has never had to take an offseason and design a detailed, meticulous strategy and stuff it in a binder, or on a computer. 

And that’s just fine.  

Campbell understands the game. Relates well to players — according to many who have played for him. And, by most accounts, has a fine sense of the shifting cultural norms from one generation to the next. 

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As he told Billy Liucci, a Texas A&M writer who hosts a podcast, last summer: 

“You have to be able to adjust to the athlete of today. And what the athlete of today is—it’s not necessarily, ‘Oh man, it’s a negative thing.’ It’s just different. And these kids were raised different, and they have different experiences than we did 20 years ago and those before us …  

“… 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. Like I always approach it as we are working together … Now, how do I make your job easier? That’s my job. How do I pull the most out of you? That’s my job as a coach. And your job is to use me as a resource.” 

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If there is a single reason Sheila Ford Hamp hired Campbell, you can find it in those words, and in that sentiment. She didn’t want another dictator prowling her sideline.  

Hamp understands that to win in the NFL these days, communication, leadership and motivation are essential. If Campbell only arrives with these traits, the Lions should be better off moving forward. 

And yet? 

There is still the matter of strategy and on-field philosophy. Campbell spoke about this too in the same podcast: 

“On offense, I need you to ball-control, man. Chew up the clock. Let’s get in manageable third downs, get your first down and let’s do some more things that are high efficiency plays that are going to chew up the clock.” 

On the one hand, this is a fine and sturdy view of how to win games on Sundays. There are plenty of teams that do, including the team he is coming from — the Saints, who made the divisional round this season propelled by a top-five defense and an elite running game. 

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On the other hand? 

Drew Brees, New Orleans’ quarterback, isn’t near the player he once was. His limitation throwing the ball, especially to the boundary and downfield, kneecapped the offense.  

And while the Saints’ ball-control attack was good enough to make the playoffs and win double-digit games the last couple of years, it wasn’t good enough to beat the best offensive teams in the playoffs — New Orleans lost to Tampa Bay on Sunday

The best offensive teams in the league are the teams that win the titles. The conference championship games bear this out.  

Let’s stay with Tampa, where Tom Brady and a group of top-flight receivers, along with a couple of solid running backs, form the third-best scoring offense in the league. 

Tampa’s opponent this Sunday in the NFC title game, Green Bay, has the best offense in the league, led by an even better quarterback (at least this season) in Aaron Rodgers. 

Meanwhile in the AFC title game, the Buffalo Bills come with the second-best offense and the Kansas City Chiefs? Well, the defending champs have Patrick Mahomes and the scariest bunch of skill players in the game.  

All four teams left can throw the ball. And all four can run it well enough to keep a defense guessing.  

As for the teams that relied on ball-control and short third downs? 

They had nice seasons, sure, but they will be watching from here on out. Teams like Tennessee and Baltimore and Indianapolis and Cleveland and the Los Angeles Rams and, yes, New Orleans. 

These are all good teams. They had fine seasons. The kind of season Lions fans would love.  

And if Campbell builds the kind of ball-control, physical squad he likes and if the new general manager, Brad Holmes, unearths enough playmakers on defense, the Lions could — maybe should — be relevant in a way they haven’t been in decades. 

But championship seasons don’t come this way anymore. Remember the Saints’ top-five defense? You know who had the top four defenses? 

Los Angeles, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Washington, in that order. The next two best defenses — Miami and New England — didn’t make the playoffs. 

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This isn’t to say that defense doesn’t matter. Of course, it does. It’s just to say that defense doesn’t matter as much as it used to.  

Playoff teams need to be solid on that side of the ball. Title teams, though, need to be elite on offense. Like the Chiefs were a year ago, when they beat the San Francisco 49ers, the team with the league’s stingiest defense, in the Super Bowl. 

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As Alabama coach Nick Saban said last month, football is changing, and for those that grew up thinking running the ball and playing defense is the way to a ring, it’s difficult.  

Saban was talking about college football. He was also talking about his own philosophical adjustment. And while the NFL is different enough from college, the similarities are more pronounced than ever.  

The Packers lit up the Rams last week in Green Bay, for example. The best offense filleting the best defense.  

Campbell understands the shift in the game. And while it’s true that his ball-control, short-third down goals could produce solid playoff runs, it’s not quite enough to produce a parade.  

Good thing, then, that he said this in the podcast as well: 

“You can’t use the same thing every game. You 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’s like, different every week. And sometimes what beat that team is not going to beat this team this week.” 

Campbell was talking about what he learned from Bill Parcells — he played for the legendary coach in Dallas. Parcells, of course, loved ball-control offense and sticky defense. He also loved outfoxing the other side.  

If Campbell combines a willingness to change with everything else he brings, he might be onto something special.  

The Lions are banking on it.  

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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