Allen Park — Before Dan Campbell fully committed to pursuing a coaching career after his playing days had ended, he phoned coach Mike Sherman, who was heading up Campbell’s alma mater at Texas A&M. He wanted to get a taste of what the job entailed during the Aggies’ spring practice in 2010.
There only a few short weeks, Campbell was assigned to work with a graduate assistant named Zac Taylor. Eleven years later, the two have reached the pinnacle of their profession, both head coaches in the NFL, and will lead their respective teams into battle at Ford Field on Sunday.
“The first time I met him was at A&M,” Campbell said Wednesday. “Zac was a grad assistant, who was really coaching tight ends. I came down for spring, three or four weeks, and I just sat in a room with him and helped him with that.
“That was new for him, just that position per se, but I quickly learned like, OK, this guy, this kid’s pretty sharp. He had a real good grasp of really all of it, but some of the fundamental stuff is what he picked my brain on.”
Months later, Campbell would take his first official coaching job, as an intern with the Miami Dolphins. A year later he was coaching the team’s tight ends, and a year after that, Taylor joined the staff as an assistant quarterbacks coach.
In 2015, when the Dolphins fired coach Joe Philbin four games into the season, Campbell was named the franchise’s interim head coach. And later that year, when he dismissed offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, Campbell asked Taylor to replace him.
After last Sunday’s heartbreaking loss to the Minnesota Vikings, and Campbell’s emotional press conference afterward, the Lions coach got a text from future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees.
The two had shared a locker room in New Orleans, both as teammates and while Campbell was on the Saints coaching staff the past five seasons.
“This man played the game like he coaches the game and I texted him after the game and said, ‘I love the way your team fought,'” Brees said during halftime of “Sunday Night Football,” where he now works as an in-studio analyst. “He texted back and I felt those emotions (from his press conference) in that text message, which was, ‘I love this team and I love the way they fight.’
“It’s tough because they haven’t been able to find a way to win yet, but I’d feel really good about my football team if I was Dan Campbell, just in watching them fight, scratch and claw, just as he said. I think it just epitomizes his mentality as a player and what he’s instilling them.”
Former coach Tony Dungy, who was also on the halftime show with Brees, echoed those sentiments while sharing his own turnaround story.
“That’s emotion, that’s heartbreak, but I love the way the Lions are playing,” Dungy said. “They’re showing heart, and let me me tell you Dan Campbell, I went through the same thing my first year. We’re losing games like this. We started out 0-5, losing games at the last minute, making plays to lose games.
“I remember walking off the field and this guy yelling at me, ‘Dungy, you stink. I thought we were supposed to be better. I’m never coming back to a game as long as you’re the coach here.’ I just walked with my head down and I wanted to cry. But you know what, one year later, we were 5-0 and in first place because our guys kept fighting.”
Asked about the text exchange, Campbell said he probably wouldn’t be a head coach if it wasn’t for the success the Saints had with Brees at the helm, and it was meaningful for the retired quarterback to reach out.
“He doesn’t send me a text every week,” Campbell said. “I know him well and we’re friends, but I know if he’s sending me something it’s because it means something, so that’s why it kind of spoke volumes.”
Taylor’s 3-2 Cincinnati squad is led by quarterback Joe Burrow, the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL Draft who is making the often-discussed developmental jump between a player’s first and second season.
Through five games, Burrow is completing nearly 72% of his passes for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns. The only downside with the performance is he’s been sloppy taking care of the ball. He’s thrown six interceptions, one more than he had in 10 games a year ago.
“You see a guy that you can tell is, he’s getting them into the right play, he knows exactly what he’s looking for, what he’s been coached to do,” Campbell said. “They do play a lot in empty (sets) so he can see it, and he sees it very well and he knows where to go with the football. He’s got some weapons. He’s got about three or four answers that he can go to by just the look.
“And he can throw the heck out of the ball. He’s a pretty accurate quarterback, he’s got poise in the pocket, he’s got the ability to scramble. He’s not a running quarterback, but he’s got the ability to scramble with his eyes down field and he’s got pocket awareness.”
The Bengals, selecting two slots in front of the Lions in the first round of the draft this year, opted to provide Burrow with a premium pass-catcher over offensive lineman Penei Sewell, who the Lions happily took No. 7 overall.
Predictably, Burrow is still getting sacked too often — 14 times through those five games — but wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase has been as advertised, if not better. He ranks seventh in the NFL with 456 yards and his five touchdowns trail only the Chargers’ Mike Williams, who has six.
Chase has been doing much of his damage downfield. The rookie leads the league with five receptions of 40 or more yards.
The Lions were down a pair of cornerbacks during Wednesday’s practice with starter Amani Oruwariye and backup and return man Corey Ballentine not practicing.
Tight end T.J. Hockenson (knee) and outside linebacker Trey Flowers (knee) were also not doing much of anything during the portion of practice open to the media. Both players were limited throughout last week but played full workloads against the Vikings.