I owe Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell an apology

Detroit Free Press

I was highly skeptical after Dan Campbell’s first news conference as Detroit Lions head coach. While most people reveled in his “we’re going to bite a kneecap off” viral soundbite, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes.

He talked about grit and how his team would be like its city. Tough, blue-collar, blah, blah, blah. He dropped the “S” word.

Then he started a news conference wearing a racing helmet to promote the Detroit Grand Prix. Another eye roll for the full 360 degrees, followed by some brain hemorrhaging.

This was Dan Campbell? The same Dan Campbell I covered from 2006-08 when he played a tight-lipped tight end for the Lions? It was like pulling teeth to get anything out of Campbell in the locker room.

I remember stopping him to ask a few questions once and he acted like a guy who was double-parked outside a police station. And it wasn’t just me.

“I had to hold him down to ask him what the deal was,” quarterback Jon Kitna said in 2006 about an injury Campbell was playing through.

So I thought a lot of Campbell’s news conferences might be schtick. Performance-art podium patter to appease the masses.

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Then the Zoom sessions ended and training camp started. I got to see Campbell in person. I got to observe him and listen to him and read his reactions to questions and how he went about his answers.

I’ve come to this conclusion: I owe Campbell an apology.

Because it’s not schtick. It’s not an act. This is who he is.

The strongest proof of this came a couple of weeks ago when Campbell took it on the chin and owned up to his mistake of cutting long snapper Don Muhlbach on his 40th birthday. Campbell called himself an asshole.

It’s one thing to say you’re being authentic when you’re enjoying the positive bump from colorful comments in news conferences. But it’s another thing to say you’re authentic when you’re owning a mistake and calling yourself a derogatory name that would start a fight if you directed it at someone else.

Anyone who has the candor and self-awareness to call himself an A-hole is definitely not an A-hole. As we all know, true A-holes don’t know they’re A-holes while they’re being A-holes.

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I criticized Campbell and the Lions for making the decision to cut Muhlbach, one of the longest-tenured and most respected players for the franchise, on his 40th birthday when they could have made that decision 364 other days and it wouldn’t have resulted in such bad optics.

But the Muhlbach incident taught us something about Campbell that most people might not have picked up on. He handled the fallout the right way. He didn’t spin the story or evade the truth.

For years, I’ve talked to the Lions’ public-relations folks about making a problematic issue a one-day story instead of letting it drag on. Not only did Campbell try to make cutting Muhlbach a one-day story but he broke the news himself to get in front of it.

Campbell announced Muhlbach’s release at the top of his news conference on a Tuesday. The story kept gaining traction into Wednesday, when the Lions didn’t have scheduled access for reporters. When Campbell held his next news conference, on Thursday, he was immediately asked about Muhlbach. He easily could have done what most coaches probably would have done to diffuse the situation and say he had already addressed it and wasn’t going to rehash it.

Instead, Campbell pulled the pin and jumped on his own A-hole grenade. He also had admitted in May to making a mistake and being late to schedule joint practices.

Those are the kinds of honest answers that earn my trust, because if Campbell is willing to publicly excoriate himself, then privately he must be willing to go even further when it comes to dealing with his players and staff. Because the people who work for a woeful franchise like the Lions need to hear some uncomfortable truths.

Understand this about Campbell: None of what he’s doing guarantees success. We won’t know a lick about his potential until the games are played and he’s confronted with adversity.

Now it’s my turn to be brutally honest with you about something: I’m rooting for Campbell to succeed, and for one big reason. The NFL is the ultimate copycat league, and if Campbell proves he can win and still be honest publicly with his thoughts, maybe other coaches will follow suit.

Sometimes NFL coaches act like discussing an injury is tantamount to revealing nuclear-missile launch codes. Jim Schwartz pretended there was no such thing as a depth chart. Jim Caldwell wouldn’t tell us what his favorite movie was.

So I hope Campbell shows coaches there’s another way. Because letting your guard down doesn’t always mean you’re opening yourself up to an attack. Sometimes letting your guard down allows people to embrace you.

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

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