Why I was so impressed with Dan Campbell after his Detroit Lions coaching debut

Detroit Free Press

Everybody was going crazy.

OK. Stop. That’s deceiving. Let me rephrase: The few fans left in Ford Field were going crazy on Sunday afternoon.

Near the end of his Detroit Lions head coaching debut, Dan Campbell stood on the sideline, watching intently, slowly chewing gum. Campbell did not come across as a crazed, over-caffeinated, fist-pumping, vocal-cord bursting head coach. He emitted a steady, focused intensity, as the Lions fought back from a 28-point deficit against the San Francisco 49ers.

As the Lions started a late and entertaining comeback in the final two minutes — putting up a late touchdown, recovering an onside kick, adding another touchdown, forcing a fumble and having one last chance to tie it — Campbell started pacing a little faster. He fidgeted with his headset and tugged on his shirt, still chewing his gum.

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Thirty-seven seconds left: Jared Goff threaded a ball over the middle to Kalif Raymond.

“Let’s go Lions!’ the crowd chanted faintly.

So many things were happening at the same time.

Penei Sewell, a rookie, had been locked up in a battle against Nick Bosa.

But Sewell was doing just fine. He was not perfect — he made some mistakes — but it was an impressive debut overall. He had passed a true Trial by Bosa.

Campbell crouched on the sideline, as Goff dropped back and sprinted out of bounds.

Now, there were 20 seconds left. Third and 9. And Goff hit T.J. Hockenson but the ball was jarred loose.

Seventeen seconds left: fourth and 9.

Goff threw incomplete and the game ended, Campbell jogged across the field and shook hands with 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan.

A short time later, Campbell held his first postgame news conference and he hit all the right notes. He was more ticked about the deficit than happy about the comeback, which felt perfect.

This is going to be a long year and the comeback was entertaining but it didn’t feel like a sign of improvement. Except for one part of it. In the big picture, the Lions gained something important on Sunday. Just getting these young players in a pressure-packed moment at the end of the game should help long-term growth.

Jared Goff had his moments in opener, but it won’t be nearly enough for bad Lions ]

An optimistic view

It was not a perfect coaching debut for Campbell and his staff. Because the Lions lost. And the defense was horrible.

“We got ourselves in a hole yesterday — self-inflicted wounds,” Campbell said Monday.

But there were several encouraging signs.

Campbell got these players to play to the end and nobody quit. His coaching staff was actually coaching. And Campbell made some smart decisions. Moving Sewell to left tackle looks like a no brainer now but it didn’t before the game. Sewell played well (and yes, what they do there going forward is going to be interesting but let’s leave that for another day).

“I thought he did a good job of holding his own,” Campbell said, after watching the tape.

The Lions unveiled an impressive running game — that is, until falling so far behind that they had to abandon it.

And I loved how Campbell was aggressive, going for it twice on fourth down.

To me, those are all encouraging signs.

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So was this: The Lions finished with just five penalties and only five teams in the league had fewer after Game 1. Last year, the Lions had 95 penalties, including 18 in their last two games. That shows an improved discipline. It also reflects the quality of the Lions coaching staff. Clearly, they are teaching the right way to do things. Or ways that don’t get flags, which is an entirely new concept in Detroit.

Facing a fantastic defensive front, the Lions had just one holding penalty, which is yet another encouraging sign and it’s even more impressive considering they lost Taylor Decker and had to change both tackles.

“We had to throw it there at the end of the game, I think at one point, 20 in a row or 21 in a row, whatever that is,” Campbell said. “That’s not easy on your O-line.”

Sweating the small stuff

On Monday afternoon, Campbell again hit all the right notes again in his day-after press conference.

He expressing empathy for Jeff Okudah, who has been lost for the year with an injury.

But more than anything, Campbell focused on the little things the Lions did wrong.

That is pure coach-speak. But it also happens to be true, and it’s the only hope this can be turned around.

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Campbell, his coaches and these players have to be focused maniacally on the little things. And there were countless mistakes to clean up after this game.

“There are so many little details to the game on both sides of the ball,” Campbell said. “Even from alignment, to what they did to us schematically, to the way we aligned, man, we weren’t moving the front or clipping the front the way we should have. Our gap responsibilities were not where they need to be. Offensively, our route depth. Just all of the little things, man, that go with playing this game, we have got to clean up. The positive is that if we can just clean those up, now let’s see where we stand.”

That’s what a good coach sounds like.

Ticked off about mistakes. Smart enough to know you can learn from them. Focused on improving. Understanding that’s the only way to build a winner.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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