Niyo: Dan Campbell cranks up the volume on Lions’ rebuild

Detroit News

John Niyo
| The Detroit News

Wherever it leads, and whatever it becomes, this much we can say about the Lions’ latest football endeavor: It won’t be boring. Or quiet.

That much came through loud and clear Thursday — profanely so, at one point — as the Lions officially introduced their new head coach, Dan Campbell, the former New Orleans Saints’ assistant and a hulking figure who now becomes the face of this woebegone franchise.

And the voice. The voice, too. That deep, booming baritone is one part Texas, another part “The Big Lebowski” and the rest fueled by “a gallon of coffee,” as the 44-year-old Campbell described it Tuesday, wiping sweat from his brow and clearly uncomfortable in a suit and tie.

As first impressions go, this was perfectly delivered and palpably different, even in a virtual setting. And in a 90-minute press conference that was unlike anything we’ve seen or heard from this organization in quite a while, there was plenty of ground covered — and maybe even something gained.

“Wait until you talk to him,” Lions owner Sheila Ford Hamp said, describing the interview process that led to Campbell signing a six-year contract Wednesday. “You’ll see what I’m saying. He stood out. He still stands out.”

He does, indeed, and not simply because of his physical stature. And while winning the press conference certainly doesn’t equate to winning on the field, particularly in the NFL, in Detroit, after everything that’s been said and done — and undone, again and again — it does matter just a little.

That’s why Jim Caldwell, with his placid approach, never got full credit for what he accomplished in his time here. It’s why Matt Patricia, with his two-bit Bill Belichick routine, never built up any goodwill while he was busy tearing things down in Allen Park as a first-time head coach.  

And it’s at least partly why the Lions are reversing course once more, if you were listening closely to what Hamp and team president Rod Wood were saying after they dismissed former GM Bob Quinn and Patricia back in November and began their search for new leadership.

New approach

They were done with the condescension that proved to be part of the package deal they’d brought in from New England. And just as many of the veteran players in the Lions’ locker room recoiled at the caustic approach that introduced an insular Patriot Way, ownership sought something that felt more genuine than forced in its wake. And doors that were left open instead of closed.

It’s why we keep hearing about “collaboration” in Allen Park this week, and why Campbell says already “tied at the hip” to new GM Brad Holmes. The two were in the office past midnight Wednesday talking about Campbell’s vision and his coaching staff, and the plan is to do a deep dive on the current roster this weekend, before the draft prep ramps up with the Senior Bowl next week.

“You have to get good people around you who are pulling in the same direction,” Campbell said. “It’s all about the team. There’s no ego.”

But there is a character, and not a caricature, even if some will try to draw one here. Say what you will about this hire — or the arranged marriage produced by concurrent searches for a GM and a coach — but this really might be what the Lions needed. After decades of losing and too many makeovers to count — none more revealing than the last — they needed a leader with a personality big enough to drown out some of the negativity.

Someone like Campbell, who opened his press conference by joking that he’d gotten the job in a case of mistaken identity — the Lions are believed to be one of multiple NFL teams that targeted Iowa State’s Matt Campbell in this hiring cycle — and then proceeded to explain just how “bad” he wanted it, and why.

“This place has been kicked, it’s been battered, it’s been bruised, and I can sit up here and give you coach speak all day long,” said Campbell, who played tight end for the Lions from 2006-08. “I can give you, ‘Hey, we’re going to win this many games,’ but none of that matters and you guys don’t want to hear it, anyway. You’ve had enough of that s—. Excuse my language.”

No excuses necessary. Not with this audience, and everything Lions fans have seen, including these last few years of diminishing returns, with double-digit losses and last-place finishes in the NFC North.

Not surprisingly, Campbell was asked about that 0-16 season in 2008, a march to infamy that he missed almost entirely as he went on injured reserve after playing in the opener and returning home to his family in Texas. He was asked, too, about the “Same Old Lions” moniker that almost feels like a birthmark for this franchise by now.

Campbell’s response was to talk about mind over matter, prefacing his comments with a self-deprecating apology, “A lot of you will think I’m a kook a little bit here …”

“But I do believe you can will things to happen in some regard, if you’re a positive thinker,” he said. “I believe that when you think the right things and you’re around the right people and you deliver a message of hope and you get your players and the fans to buy into that hope, it becomes more than just one person, one team, one community. It becomes all of us.

“I think this football team can spark something great here. Listen, deep down in my core, that’s what I believe, man. I don’t want to sell you guys something that you’ve been sold so many times over and over. Believe me, I get it. And I wouldn’t want any of you guys to just jump on board right now and be like, ‘I’m sold, I got it, 100%!’ I wouldn’t expect you to. But I’m going to do everything in my power to win you guys over and get our team to win you guys over.”

And as for the opponents?

“We’re going to kick you in the teeth, all right?” Campbell said. “And when you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you. And when you knock us down, we’re going to get up, and on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off, all right?”

The “Danimal” dismemberment continued from there — the other kneecap was next, and then “another hunk out of you” after that — and “before long, we’re going to be the last one standing,” he finished. “That’s going to be the mentality.”

A little help

And that right there was more red meat than the fans were ever going to get from Campbell’s predecessor in Detroit, or the coach before that. Which, again, may mean nothing if he can’t find the right play-callers on both sides of the ball.

Bringing Saints secondary coach Aaron Glenn along with him to be his defensive coordinator is a pretty good start — the Jets actually interviewed Glenn for their head coaching vacancy — particularly if he’s surrounded by some experience. Hiring someone like Anthony Lynn, recently fired as the Los Angeles Chargers’ head coach, to run the offense seems like a philosophical fit. But targeting a position coach like Ken Dorsey, who was viewed as Brian Daboll’s heir apparent as Buffalo’s coordinator, also makes sense, given his work with Josh Allen. Ditto the Ravens’ James Urban, one of a handful of candidates Campbell has interviewed already.

“I’m not going to find a staff that’s loaded with just a bunch of people that look good on paper,” Campbell said. “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.”

And there is plenty to be done here, they all agree. No one’s making any long-term commitments to Matthew Stafford or any pie-in-the-sky promises about playoff contention. This roster was retrofitted with someone else’s vision in mind, and Holmes and Campbell now must figure out what all they can salvage to suit their own.

“There’s some pieces here that I’m fired up about, I really am,” Campbell said. “And look, let’s call a spade a spade, there’s probably more pieces offensively than defensively that super fire me up.”

But as for what gets the fans in Detroit fired up, that, too, Campbell seems to understand, in ways others might not. Half of his 22-year career was spent as a player, and the other half as a coach. And while he spent most of his last two seasons as an NFL player on injured reserve, one was for the winless Lions in 2008 and the other was with the Super Bowl champion Saints in ’09. It’s fair to say he understands the emotional impact of each.

“At the end of the day, I know wins and losses are the only things that matter,” Campbell said. “But when I say I want our team to take on the identity of this city, I mean it. And (the players are) going to hear it from me and it’s going to mean something.”

What it means to you is something else, entirely. But as recent history suggests, the more that message resonates from the start, the longer he’ll have to deliver on it.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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