New Lions head coach Dan Campbell credits Saints’ Sean Payton for rise

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

Surprisingly, given the New Orleans Saints’ extensive track record of success the past 15 years, Sean Payton’s coaching tree has born little fruit during that time.

Prior to the Detroit Lions hiring Saints tight end coach Dan Campbell this week, there were only two other former assistants to earn NFL head coaching jobs, Doug Marrone and Dennis Allen, and neither was working for the Saints at the time they were hired by the Bills and Raiders, respectively. 

On Thursday, Campbell was effusive in his praise of his former boss, detailing many important lessons he learned from Payton t he believes has prepared him for the Lions job. 

“He gave me an opportunity as a player and as a coach, and nobody’s believed in me more than Sean Payton, who knew exactly what I was and what I could do,” Campbell said. “Sean was always about, give me a player that I know exactly who he is, and what he is going to be every day, and I can do something with that guy. It’s the guys who are up and down, and the ones that spike here and all of a sudden, they’re down — I don’t know what to do with those guys. I got nothing for them.

“…I’ll never be able to thank him enough,” Campbell said. “I’ve learned more football under him as my time as a player, but now as a coach, being under him five years, about how you see the game, how you use your staff, how you hire your staff, situational football, when to go for it, when to not, when’s it time to be aggressive, when’s the time to back off. But a majority of the lessons that I have are from him, so I’ll forever be grateful for that.”

Campbell joined the Saints in 2016. It was his second coaching stop after spending five years in Miami where he started as a low-level offensive assistant and climbed all the way to interim head coach after Joe Philbin was fired in 2015

After the Dolphins passed on giving Campbell the permanent job in favor of Adam Gase, Payton was quickly on the phone trying to the energetic motivator to New Orleans. 

“I had a couple of other offers going on,” Campbell said, “but Sean was like, ‘Listen, you come out here, be my assistant head coach and I’ll fill in all the pieces for you. I’ll fill in everything you need, and you need to know. And I’ll show you exactly what it’s supposed to look like.’ He goes, ‘Look, I know you know how to coach the position. I know you know offense and you can grow from this.’ But he goes, ‘As a head coach, I’ll fill in this stuff for you. I’ll show you about the draft. I’ll show you about players. I’ll show you about the staff. I’ll show you about game situations. I’ll let you stand up in front of the room. I’ll let you lead these guys.’

“And so, man, he was right, and I did, and I trusted him, and I’ve always trusted him. And he took me under his wing, and I was a sponge. That’s what I was. I was a sponge. I did exactly what he needed me to do, asked me to do. You know, if I felt like there was some fires I needed to put out before they got to him, I would do that. I felt like that was one of my jobs, but he allowed me to grow. And that’s one of the best compliments a coach can ever give to another coach, he allowed me to grow into the role I’m about to take on right now.”

As Campbell puts together a staff, he’ll do so under the principals instilled in him by Payton. It won’t be about putting together a group that looks good on paper, but finding coaches that complement each other. 

“Sean is a big believer in compatibility,” Campbell said. “…compatibility is important. It’s highly important. It doesn’t matter — you can put the best coaches in the room, and if they’re all a bunch of alphas, and they’re trying to eat each other alive, you’re never going to get anything done. I’m very conscious of those things.

“…Here’s the other thing that Sean always used to say when it came to the roster, but it comes with the people around you as well, and that is, it’s not about the best 53, it’s about the right 53. I think that way as a staff.”

The emphasis surrounding the Campbell hire is establishing a winning culture. But in the NFL, sometimes changing the voice of leadership leads to a natural bounce and improved performance. The secret, which Payton and the Saints have unlocked, is a long-term culture. 

For Campbell, that’s a culture of communication, transparency, honesty and accountability. 

“I think there’s a lot of people nowadays that have a hard time of saying things the way they really are,” Campbell said. “I think they have a hard time of telling these grown men that they’re wrong or they don’t like what they’re doing and explaining why they don’t like it and what the problem is. For example, if a guy comes in late, just hypothetical, and you don’t say a word to him but you just fine him, that does nothing. That does nothing. You need to talk to the kid. Talk to him. Open up, ‘What’s going on? Why were you late? This is not going to happen again.’

“You have to confront,” Campbell said. “It’s healthy. It’s the only way you can learn. And Sean is as good as anybody. We’ve all been corrected with Sean Payton, plenty of times. But listen, everybody knows who’s in charge and everybody’s in line and they understand when you’re right and when you’re wrong.”

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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