Allen Park — It wasn’t scripted, but it was discussed. Playfully so, after Lions head coach Dan Campbell had made his way over to one of the team’s two practice fields Wednesday on the opening day of training camp.
Campbell, dressed all in black on a warm, humid morning, was part of an animated conversation with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn and secondary coach Aubrey Pleasant before the Lions’ defensive players arrived from a team stretching period on the adjoining field.
Soon after, it was clear what the coaches were bantering about. Glenn barked out some instructions and then the players began a rapid-fire drill of “up-downs,” running in place and then falling to the ground — stomach and chest first — before popping back up to repeat the exercise. It’s a common sight at a football practice, but in this case there was something different: The coaches — Campbell included — were doing it, too.
At 45, Campbell, who played 11 NFL seasons as a tight end, still looks the part, though the sleeve he wears on his knee is a reminder of surgeries past. And when I asked him after practice Wednesday how well he’d come through his set of 40 up-downs, he laughed.
“I recovered,” Campbell said. “But it took me longer than the players.”
Still, it was another glimpse of how things are different this year, with a new coaching staff in place and a new vibe in Allen Park that’s impossible to miss.
“Just the energy out here is a lot different — guys smiling, having fun,” said D’Andre Swift, the Lions’ second-year running back. “People just kind of forget to have fun playing this game, playing a kid’s game. Can’t ever forget to have fun.”
The last few years weren’t much fun, obviously, what with all the losing, all the condescension and all the rules under Matt Patricia. But Campbell’s message to the team Tuesday night, on the eve of training camp, was a clear departure from that, not unlike that introductory press conference he held back in January.
“I feel like between myself and the staff that I built, we understand what winning looks like and how to get players there,” said Campbell, who spent the last five seasons as an assistant head coach in New Orleans under Sean Payton. “We understand players: How to motivate, how to push, and then we’ll teach them the scheme. But just to get a swagger and an attitude of confidence, I think that’s going to go a long way.
“We’re going to treat them like men until they prove otherwise. I gave them four rules last night: Don’t be late, keep your weight in check, don’t disrespect your teammates, and don’t disrespect this game.”
It sounds simple enough, yet Campbell knows none of this will be easy. He spent three seasons here as a player, and his last training camp in Detroit was followed by an 0-16 season, though mercifully Campbell spent almost all of it back home in Texas on injured reserve. So he certainly knows the landscape, and how barren it can be.
He also knows he’ll ultimately be judged on his win-loss record in Detroit, just like every other NFL coach in every other city. But in the here and now, every little thing matters. Even something as trivial as a head coach doing calisthenics.
“Yeah, to us (it does),” said defensive tackle Michael Brockers, one of the notable veteran additions to the Lions’ roster this offseason. “As a player, it just shows he’ll get in the grind, and he’ll get on the ground, too. And you gain a lot of respect for a guy that can get on this turf and do the same exercise as you.
“Because some of the players wonder, like, ‘Man, if you were doing this, what would happen?’ And then for a coach to get down there and show you, like, ‘OK, I’m about this life,’ we definitely gained a lot of respect for him.”
Respect is earned on a daily basis in professional sports. And as we’ve seen with this franchise, it’s lost just as easily. Championship rings don’t carry much weight. But shared experiences do, whether it’s a fourth-quarter collapse on the field or an ugly exchange in a team meeting room.
Planting those seeds
And while it’s far too soon to pass any judgments on Campbell’s abilities as a head coach at this point, it’s not hard to make a few observations.
The new guy’s attention to detail seems to be on point thus far. His willingness to listen, and adapt, appears to be a strength as well. And just watching him make the rounds Wednesday during the first practice at camp you could see he’d taken to heart the advice of his coaching mentor, Bill Parcells.
Campbell chatted with Brockers during the pre-practice stretching, then shared a few words with rookie defensive tackle Alim McNeill, who already appears to be on track for a starting role, by the way. Campbell stopped for a chat with general manager Brad Holmes and team president Rod Wood on the sideline, before joining the defense for his impromptu workout.
Later, during position group drills, Campbell spent time with the tight ends — the position he knows best — and then offered some coaching points to the defensive linemen working on the blocking sleds. There was time to greet Martha Firestone Ford, who made an appearance Wednesday, but also for rookie receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sage Surratt, as well as young tight end Charlie Taumoepeau, during a team scrimmage period.
“Coach Parcells said, ‘You’re a gardener,’” Campbell explained. “This is your garden — you cannot neglect one area of your garden. If you don’t water it or pull the weeds … if you don’t handle this properly, it will die. But if you manage it properly, it can flourish.”
So that’s the idea, anyway. And we’ll see how this relationship grows, between a head coach and his player. But if nothing else, Campbell planted a seed when he dropped to the ground Wednesday. His players noticed, just as they have all the other changes along the way this offseason
“He’s doing it the right way,” Brockers said. “You know, a lot of guys come into that position and they get that power and it just kind of overwhelms them. He’s coming in, it’s all about the team. …
“He’s starting on the right track, and everybody’s buying in. A lot of players, you can see right now — a lot of young players — are buying in. Because he came in with the right attitude.”