Wojo: Lions’ Dan Campbell is much more than just the ‘kneecap’ guy

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
| The Detroit News

Dan Campbell spoke as colorfully and enthusiastically as any NFL head coach ever has in an opening news conference. It was entertaining and memorable, right down to the description of gnawing on opponents’ kneecaps. That was figurative, not literal (I’m fairly certain).

What Campbell did Thursday in his Lions introduction was partly crude and partly shrewd, and it stirred up folks all over social media and national talk shows. In Detroit, he changed the conversation and set a tone. After watching him passionately pontificate for 90 minutes, were fans and media as obsessed about the lack of experience, from rookie GM Brad Holmes to first-time full-time head coach Campbell? Not really. Not yet.

Oh, that time will come. And for the Lions to build a decent culture, it’ll take more than hiring a head coach and GM who speak well. The next step is the one the franchise has never made, and I’m not here to say they finally got it right. I’m here to say they gave themselves a chance by hiring two football people who appear more self-aware than self-promoting.

Don’t get distracted by the wild viral reaction, positive or negative, to Campbell’s oratory. He dropped a few tears and one little s-bomb, and a day later, he was the talk of NFL America. Jimmy Fallon made a joke on “The Tonight Show.” Players and coaches raved about the display, which looked genuine, not rehearsed.

Nationally, some have ridiculed him. It was as if commentators eavesdropped on Campbell’s pep talk to his new fan base and passed judgment based on a snippet or two. Notably, this one: “When you knock us down, we’re going to get up, and on the way up we’re going to bite a kneecap off.”

Some clucked their tongues and painted him as a modern-day barbarian. Apparently, humorless defenders of decorum want coaches to act like bank executives. Ha. It’s football, not rocket science, as the Lions well know.

As near as I can tell, two strong opinions emerged. One — this guy is an absolute DUDE and I’ll run through brick walls and Zoom calls for him! Two — this guy is a meathead who believes in cannibalism!

High regard

The second is the classic, casual perception when you hear someone with a bit of a twang show raw emotion and joke about biting body parts. I’m guessing Campbell is smarter than many realize. You can’t be a dummy and work alongside the Saints’ Sean Payton as assistant head coach for five years. It takes intelligence to be a communicator who gains respect, and by most accounts, Campbell is respected by those who played with him and for him.

Don’t get me wrong. We’ve been duped before. And whether Campbell can hire a strong staff — a solid start with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn — and Holmes can deliver strong drafts ultimately will determine if he succeeds.

Campbell said many things we’ve heard before, just more graphically and emphatically, and yes, over-the-top at times. He played for the Lions during the worst of times, so he had some credibility when he talked about building a tough blue-collar team in a tough blue-collar city.

I can see why players would want to play for him, and that’s a huge part of a coach’s job. It’s the part Matt Patricia never grasped. As for other parts of the job, he’s unproven outside of a 12-game stint as the Dolphins’ interim head coach in 2015, and that gives you justifiable pause.

Opening press conferences are often overblown and overanalyzed, long on platitudes and short on specifics. I watched part of Robert Saleh’s introduction with the Jets a few hours after Campbell spoke. Saleh, once perceived as the top candidate for the Lions, was measured and polished and talked about an “All gas, no brake” approach. His debut was widely lauded in New York, if not as widely dissected as Campbell’s.

Many different styles can work, and I never make grand conclusions based on debut news conferences. But I will say, after considering all that Campbell said and how people reacted, Lions fans don’t have to feel bad about feeling good today.

“I think we need to bring some hope back into this place, man,” Campbell, 44, said. “I’m a big mind-over-matter person. A lot of you are going to think I’m a kook a little bit here, but I do believe that you can will things to happen in some regard. … At the end of the day, I know wins and losses are the only thing that matters, but when I say I want our team to take on the identity of this city, I mean it.”

Amid all the bombast, he flipped easily to questions about his football philosophies, about not being tied to one system or one player. He understandably avoided early assessments of the roster or Matthew Stafford’s future. More will be evident after Campbell puts together his staff, but he’s wise not to guarantee anything.

When an inexperienced leader takes over, it’s sometimes said he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. I get the sense Campbell knows what he doesn’t know.

“Here’s my philosophy on offense, and defense for that matter: We’re going to run a system that puts our best on your worst,” Campbell said. “That’s what we’re going to do because that’s what we did in New Orleans. If you’re telling me that our left tackle is better than their right end, and we can run outside zone all day — we’re going to run outside zone. … Hey look, I’m not a system guy. I’ve been through all of them, I’ve seen all of them. I’m going to find the best coordinators that are going to come and have a vision of how he wants to run it with mine.”

Talks to you

Sounds simple. The hope is, Campbell is a complicated guy who doesn’t mind sounding simple. That’s how you connect with more people, by not talking over them or through them.

Naturally, Campbell’s most-colorful comments grabbed the attention, much of it positive. Former Michigan and Dolphins lineman Jake Long, who played for Campbell, called him “a hell of a coach.” Former Dolphins executive Mike Tannenbaum, who tabbed Campbell as Miami’s interim head coach in 2015, Tweeted: “While he might be a little under the radar, he will do a great job of creating a culture in Detroit. … he has an innate ability to connect with players and the staff around him.”

It’s not a surprise those that know Campbell, praise him. It’s also not a surprise some national pundits saw clips and opted to mock him. One commentator called his performance “unhinged.” A headline on a USA Today column took a nasty shot to try to make a point: “Detroit Lions new coach Dan Campbell, unlike Eric Bieniemy, has luxury of being a meathead.”

The lack of diversity in front offices and among head coaches is a serious issue that requires attention, and the NFL has taken measures to ensure Black candidates get interviews. The Chiefs’ Bieniemy is the prime example of someone who has yet to land a top job despite Super Bowl success.

But to spotlight the issue by taking a cheap shot at another coach is unseemly, disparaging Campbell and the Lions. There’s plenty to disparage the Lions about, but they’ve done better than most with diversity. Two of their last three GMs have been Black, including Holmes. Before Patricia, Jim Caldwell was the coach for four seasons.

When you talk emotionally and unconventionally, you open yourself up to shots. It’s the NFL, where buttoned-down form is the norm. Campbell needs to be himself and stay himself, because those qualities were the reasons he was hired. Some will judge him on soundbites and knee-bites, but if they do, they just might miss the point.


Twitter: bobwojnowski

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