For Lions’ Campbell, building nucleus more important than finding next QB

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

When Dan Campbell first interviewed with the Detroit Lions, parting ways with Matthew Stafford was raised as a hypothetical. Once Campbell emerged as a finalist for head coach, a clearer picture was presented — a split between the quarterback and the franchise that drafted him first overall in 2009 was imminent. 

“Well, I’ll tell you, the very first thing goes through my mind, man, we’ve got to find a quarterback fast,” Campbell said in a Saturday morning interview with the Detroit News. 

For the previous three men who held the title of Lions head coach, Stafford was one of the job’s biggest lures. Jim Schwartz got to build around the big-armed quarterback from Georgia, helping turn around a team that finished 0-16 in 2008 into a playoff qualifier three years later. Jim Caldwell and Matt Patricia happily inherited Stafford, allowing them to avoid the arduous task of finding a talented and capable option under center. 

Campbell, well, he’s not so lucky. In the coming weeks, the Lions will deal Stafford. Since his trade request became public last week, the team has already fielded calls from a dozen or so teams, with around half presenting competitive offers, according to a source familiar with the conversations.

And while no firm timeline has been established, the Lions will eventually whittle down those offers to the best, present them to Stafford out of respect for what he’s meant to the organization, and decide on the one that brings the best return. 

“There’s open communication, dialogue, and I mean, honestly, we’re going to get him into a home and we’re going to get the most value for it,” Campbell said. “And we wish him the best unless we’ve got to play him.”

Uncertainty at the quarterback spot is the worst kind of uncertainty for an NFL franchise. The Lions know that all too well, searching for someone as talented as Stafford for decades before they were lucky enough to land him.

Yet Campbell is calm about the task ahead. Well, maybe calm isn’t the right word to ever describe a coach who famously ranted about biting opponent’s kneecaps. No, excited is the better way to describe it. 

“I know what we’re going to do with him and what it’s going to take for teams to get him,” Campbell said. “We’re gonna get something in return, and I know if it’s (draft) capital, (general manager) Brad Holmes, I’ve got the utmost faith in him already. We’ve been bouncing stuff off each other, all of us in there, and I’m like, man, I’m really not worried because I think whatever he does, wherever it goes, he’s gonna get us some building blocks for the future.

“So I’m actually kind of excited,” Campbell said. “I really am. This is kind of fun, man. This is uncharted territory a little bit. I told Brad you may never get another trade like this. This may be the one right, so let’s let’s make the most of it and just do what you feel is right.”

But as Campbell noted, he’s going to need to find another quarterback. Fast. That said, he wants to make something clear; it doesn’t mean the Lions are going to get desperate, particularly in the upcoming draft. 

Yes, the Lions hold the No. 7 pick — and they could very well pick up an additional first-round selection in exchange for Stafford — but they won’t just take any quarterback to fill the impending void. Campbell understands swinging and missing at QB is a quick way to sink a coaching tenure, so it’s far more important to build the best roster possible, even if that means waiting to solve the biggest piece of the puzzle. 

He pointed to both the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who will meet in the Super Bowl next week, as examples. 

“There’s no question, man, a quarterback can somewhat make or break you,” Campbell said. “But that’s not always entirely true. For example, think about Kansas City, right? Think about when Andy Reid went out there and they started building that thing, man, with building blocks. Now they had Alex Smith, they had kind of this bridge quarterback. He’s kind of bridging the gap, but in the meantime, oh boy, they’re building pieces, right? Their o-line man, their tackles, the defensive tackle, D-end and cornerback. So they’re starting to build this nucleus and it’s like they go the playoffs and ah, it doesn’t work out. Then, all of sudden, this young gunslinger out of Texas Tech (Patrick Mahomes) shows up and they move up to get him and now look what’s happened.”

Interestingly, John Dorsey was the general manager of that Chiefs team through the drafting of Mahomes, and the Lions just added Dorsey as a senior personnel adviser to help Holmes navigate the early stages of Detroit’s rebuild. 

Similarly, Campbell noted that Tampa Bay had a strong nucleus in place before plugging in Tom Brady as a free agent this offseason. 

“I think more than anything, this is just me and I feel like Brad thinks that way too, it doesn’t mean we’re not going to draft a quarterback early,” Campbell said. “What I do think is let’s build this team first. Let’s build the nucleus and the foundation of this team first and get some roots in the ground. And once you get the roots in the ground and let it grow a little bit, we’ll find the right guy at the helm.

“Once you do that now, to me, your odds are better if you do that first and then find the right guy to get under center than vice versa,” Campbell continued. “Not that we wouldn’t go that way. I’m just saying that that’s kind of, philosophy-wise, that’s how I think of it.”

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