As Dan Campbell opens Detroit Lions training camp, I want to believe his approach will work

Detroit Free Press

Maybe I’ve been doing this too long.

I’m closing in on 20 years of covering the Detroit Lions, and I guess doing anything for nearly two decades is likely to foster some jadedness. One coaching regime blurs into the next. One guy has a rock, another guy has a ladder cam, the next guy has a hill. This one wore a racing helmet.

That’s why I want to believe in Dan Campbell. I want to fight my cynicism and, truly, I hope his way is the right way and that he’s starting something that will finally take root and be successful.

The Lions opened training camp Wednesday and I was genuinely eager to see what Campbell’s camp debut would look like for several reasons, especially because it marked the first time since 2019 that reporters had been face-to-face with a coach or players because of COVID-19 safety protocols.

It all started as we gathered in a large tent by the outdoor practice fields. The new media room featured color-changing LED lights in an otherwise dark tent that gave the whole thing a clubby vibe that could best be described as Pacman Jones VIP Room chic.

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Campbell’s energy was palpable as he grabbed the lectern with both arms and flexed his forearms and biceps, punctuating his sentences with a squeeze or by thrusting an arm in the air.

“Were ready,” he said. “We’re ready for practice. We’re ready to move on. So we’re good. We’re ready for Day 1. This is about to be real fun. These guys showed up in shape. We’re big, we’re long, and we look strong. We look explosive. And they crushed the conditioning test. I’m pretty fired up about that. It was outstanding.”

Then Campbell admitted something about his own state of mind as he prepared for his first day of training camp as a full-time NFL head coach: He couldn’t sleep. Like a kid waiting for Christmas or the first day of school or a young person about to start a new job, Campbell lay awake all night excited and anxious as he mulled every scenario.

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“I actually went to bed thinking — I was thinking about — we’re going to work three situations this afternoon,” he said. “Talk to them, walk through them in the afternoon walkthrough. I looked at one before I went to bed. Actually, it was just as simple as the victory at the very end of the game. Super Bowl 49, New England vs. Seattle.”

Campbell went through an extensive replay of Malcolm Butler’s interception and the dramatic conclusion of the Patriots’ victory.

“All of these little scenarios go through your head,” he said. “And I know that was awhile back. That was in 2015. So that and the excitement of the day, that’s just how my mind goes.”

Campbell probably didn’t realize he was invoking one of the proudest professional moments of his predecessor’s career. The irony was so rich that at first I thought Campbell was messing with us. But it was completely innocent.

Then I started hearing music and wondered if I was having a stroke. In my head, I could hear The Who playing their classic rock song “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” which contains the lyrics, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss.”

Because this is sort of the way I have felt about the Lions during my time. The coaches arrive with unfettered optimism and hope, until they turn out to be more alike than anyone cares to imagine.

This is to say that most NFL head coaches are the same at their core. They may go about things differently, but they share a mentality that allows them to devote every waking hour of their lives — and even the hours that shouldn’t be awake — to figuring out schemes and dealing with hundreds of people’s problems while doing a job that’s almost certain to end prematurely in failure.

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I’m not saying Campbell will fail. No one can predict that any more than someone can predict wild success for the man.

What I am saying is that on Campbell’s first day of Lions camp, a lot of things felt familiar to the way they were run by Matt Patricia. And by Jim Caldwell. And by Jim Schwartz.

You’ll probably hear about Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn joining the players in doing up-downs during practice. And that will make it seem like it’s a new day, 180 degrees different from Patricia.

But the actual practice was eerily similar the ones Patricia ran: Efficient and fairly quiet (yes, minus the running punishments). Patricia liked using creative drills and Campbell showed this spring he enjoys fun drills like obstacle races. Both took the time to speak with owner emeritus Martha Ford during drill work.

The big difference between Campbell and his predecessor is that Campbell emphasizes the big picture more often publicly and stresses the importance for players to find joy in their work.

“I kind of told the team last night, there are a number of things that play into all of this,” he said. “Competition is the biggest. But really it’s, ‘Enjoy this ride. Enjoy this ride we’re on.’

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“We know this is high stress. It’s about winning. It’s about finding ways to win. It’s about overcoming adversity. But enjoy this ride because this will be the last time this team’s together, everyone that’s in this room we all know, because of free agency and the draft and all of those things.”

Patricia cared about his players, too. But his delivery was different. Campbell’s consistent messaging has struck a chord early with a wider swath of players.

“He’s doing it the right way,” defensive end Michael Brockers said. “A lot of guys come into that position and they get that power and it kind of overwhelms them. He’s coming in, it’s all about the team.”

Then Brockers said something else. Something he could say about every coach.

“He’s just trying to do what’s best for the team,” he said. “He’s just trying to win. Everybody here’s trying to win.”

I believe that, just as I believed Patricia and Caldwell and Schwartz and Rod Marinelli were trying to do what’s best for the team and just trying to win.

And I want to believe that Campbell’s approach will work because, frankly, it’s been too long for me and too long for anyone who follows this team.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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