Dave Birkett | Detroit Free Press
Aaron Glenn, the Lions’ first-year defensive coordinator, had a 15-year playing career after he was a first-round pick in the 1994 draft. Hank Fraley, theteam’s holdover offensive line coach, spent parts of 12 seasons with four different teams.
And running backs coach/assistant head coach Duce Staley (10 NFL seasons as a player), offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn (six seasons) and defensive assistant Kelvin Sheppard (eight seasons) had playing careers longer than the NFL average (3.3 years).
The Lions have a relatively inexperienced coaching staff when it comes to time in their current roles, but few organizations can match what the team’s newest batch of coaches has seen on the field as players.
With eight former players and 90 NFL playing seasons on staff — the team is expected to hire ex-Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El for its vacant wide receivers job — the Lions would be a good bet to win a staff game of flag football at next year’s NFL combine.
Campbell said he had no intentions of populating his staff with ex-players when he took the Lions job in mid-January, it just happened that some of the best people for the spots he need to fill were ex-players.
“I honestly didn’t come in this thing and like write down on a notepad, I’m going to hire nothing but ex-players. It really wasn’t on my mind,” Campbell said. “I honestly said, I need to find the best people that are the best coaches. Like, how do I find outstanding character, but yet they’re outstanding coaches? And these are the names that I started to come up with.”
Campbell had a prior history with Brunell, Glenn and Lynn, playing with the first two in New Orleans and with the Dallas Cowboys, respectively, and playing for Lynn when Lynn was an assistant in Dallas.
He said those relationships were “a bonus” when it came to the hiring process, much like each assistant’s playing career.
“There’s something to be said about when there is an ex-NFL athlete that’s played the position, that you’ve had to learn to adapt and adjust and go through the grind and what’s helped you do those things,” Campbell said. “You’ve been around some great players that have had to adjust, and so I think that’s one element of it. They understand those athletes because they’ve been in their shoes at the highest level.”
In his introductory news conference, Campbell said his own playing experience — he was a blocking tight end who had a career-high 308 yards receiving in his first season in Detroit — has helped him become a better coach.
“Not that I was the best athlete in the world, but I think I have a realistic viewpoint of what somebody can do and can’t,” Campbell said. “For example, if you’re on the back side and you’ve got a back-side cutoff and you’re my right tackle and we’re going to ask you to try to go cut off a 2i (defensive tackle), it’s like, this is ridiculous. It’s not even feasible.
“I think if you’re not careful, you’re asking guys to do things that even though they’re phenomenally talented, it could be impossible.”
Jake Stoneburner, who played for Campbell with the Miami Dolphins and Saints, said there is a natural connection between players and coaches who played in the NFL, and he said Campbell’s playing experience, in particular, endeared him to the players he coached.
“The type of guys who played forever and are coaches earn a little bit more respect because they’ve gone through the gauntlet that we’ve gone through, and he almost went through the worst part of it,” Stoneburner said. “The ’90s, 2000s, those were like the grueling days of football where, here’s what we’re doing now. So I always had high respect (because) he’s been through the grind that all of us have been through. So as a player, you look up to that.”
Campbell said he knows of ex-players who got into coaching and did not put in the time or effort the profession requires to be successful. While it’s not unusual for players to spend 10-hour days at the team facility for practice, meetings, walk-throughs, workouts and treatment, coaches can approach double that time (or more), especially early in game weeks.
Campbell’s entry into coaching came in the spring of 2010, when he spent a month as a volunteer assistant at his alma matter, Texas A&M. Campbell lived in an RV park at the time, in a fifth-wheel hitch on the back of his pickup truck.
He joined the Dolphins as a coaching intern after his stint at A&M, and when he left, then-A&M coach Mike Sherman told him, “You’ve changed my mind” about ex-players coaching.
“He goes, ‘I just think sometimes you can get burned with ex-players, because they think they’re still a player. And they’re still on players’ times,'” Campbell recalled. “It’s the silver spoon effect is what it is. It’s like, hey, he’s got money in the pocket, and, man, you want me up that early and just kind of going through the motions. And those guys will kill you.”
Like Campbell, Glenn, Lynn, Fraley and Staley all started their NFL coaching careers in low-level positions, doing the grunt work necessary to move up.
Glenn, the former first-round pick, wanted into coaching so badly that he took a job as a scouting assistant with the Dolphins in order to get his foot in the door.
“He spent his first (year), he wasn’t even scouting. He was just the runner. He was just running errands,” Campbell said. “Didn’t miss a beat, and had to work his way back in. He had to start at the bottom and work his way back in. And I’m like, man, when you get a guy like that, with the experience that he’s had as an ex-player and what he’s got inside of him and the character, now he’s hungry to get back in. You don’t miss on those guys. I just don’t believe it.”
Neither Brunell nor Sheppard has worked as an NFL assistant before, but Brunell spent eight seasons coaching high school football, five working as an NFL combine mentor, and Campbell said he was like a coach while playing as a backup in the second half of his career.
When Brunell interviewed with the Lions, he gave Campbell a manual of his do’s and don’ts at the quarterback position, essentially a guide on how to prepare for games.
The Lions likely will add a young quarterback to build around in 2021, after they trade Matthew Stafford, and Campbell said he believes having an ex-pro like Brunell as a mentor is essential to the position.
“If there’s one position where you felt like it was vital that you got an ex-player who played in the league at a position, for that coach, for a positional coach, it would be quarterback, more than any of the other ones,” he said. “I think that’s an edge. I really do. Because those guys, that’s a whole different breed, that’s a whole different description of what those guys have to do.”