Dan Campbell’s superpower in Year 1 could lead Detroit Lions to sustained success

Detroit Free Press

It’s taken me an entire NFL season, but I think I’ve figured out Dan Campbell’s superpower.

In fact, the Detroit Lions coach opened his season-ending news conference Monday by using that superpower to drop some heavy news.

“I’m going to start with this,” Campbell said, “we’re parting ways with A-Lynn.”

A-Lynn, if you don’t know, is the nickname of Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. It was expected news, but still a major decision that has huge ramifications for the team’s future.

This is the way it was all season for Campbell, and it was a tough season at that. When he made a mistake, he owned it and thereby reduced its impact.

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He forgot to schedule joint practices in the preseason and he admitted it was the fault of his own inexperience.

He cut long snapper Don Muhlbach on his 40th birthday and then called himself an “(expletive) asshole” for doing it.

He cut veteran linebacker Jamie Collins after three weeks but avoided any ensuing media or locker-room drama.

He demoted Lynn midway through the season by stripping him of his play-calling duties, yet there wasn’t a hint of acrimony between the men.

He said he needed more out of Jared Goff, but he also said the quarterback’s struggles weren’t entirely his own fault.

At every turn, when Campbell had to make a hard choice and then explain it publicly, he did so with a genuine sense of respect, humility and grace. The moment never seemed too big for him, even when he was brought to tears after losing on a last-second long field goal for the second time in three games. A loss that dropped the Lions’ record to 0-5 and pretty much ended any hope of a good season.

I wasn’t the biggest fan of hiring Campbell. He wasn’t on any other team’s radar and he didn’t interview with any other NFL team. He had not called plays, he had not been a coordinator and had only served as an interim head coach for the Miami Dolphins six years earlier.

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This was either going to be another face-plant hire by the Lions, I thought at the time, or somehow the team had outfoxed the rest of the NFL and cornered the market on wisdom. A year later, it’s still hard to know what to make of Campbell when it comes to his potential to have sustained success.

I haven’t gotten to know Campbell well. Outside of news conferences, we haven’t had a personal conversation or spent any time with him away from football. It has also been hard to get a read on him from players because COVID has prevented access to the locker room, which is where reporters gather a lot of their understanding.

But there’s little doubt that Campbell is connecting with his players. A 3-13-1 record was a disappointment for even the most negative preseason prognosticator. But the fact the Lions kept fighting to stay in games and won three of their final six games speaks to the way Campbell was able to keep his coaches and players motivated over 18 mostly fruitless weeks.

This may have been what Lions special assistant Chris Spielman saw in Campbell when he played a big role in hiring him: an ability to coalesce and overcome, perhaps even an ability to inspire.

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That gives Campbell a chance to move this team forward. When he addressed the team in the locker room after Sunday’s win over Green Bay, he told them, “We are now springboarding … we know what we’re capable of.”

He said it again Monday.

“It should give us a springboard,” he said. “And now we’ll be a year into it, us as coaches, the players that are here. We’ll be better. We’ll be better for it.”

Campbell the Lions could  vault themselves forward and win significantly more games next season, possibly approaching a .500 record. But there’s one key ingredient Campbell has little control over: talent.

There’s only so much the Lions or any other team, especially in the early rebuilding stages, can do to procure the right players and keep them healthy. Skillful evaluation plays a big role, but so does luck. Right, JaMarcus Russell and Tom Brady?

Campbell’s debut is the worst for a Lions coach since Jim Schwartz’s 2-14 record in 2019, and even he needed three years and top-two picks Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh before he could deliver a winning season and a playoff berth.

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Campbell needs to think hard this offseason about what kind of team he wants to have, because the Lions lack an identity. And no, grit is not an identity, it’s a philosophy. The Lions need to be very good, if not great, at one aspect of the game if they want to go anywhere.

Campbell did a credible job when he took over play-calling and leaned on tight ends coach Ben Johnson to help draw up plays. But I hope he’s not seriously thinking of calling plays full-time — a possibility he left open Monday.

That would not be the best choice because part of Campbell’s strength is knowing how to manage all of his personnel, rather than getting tied up with the minute details of the offense. But I would also trust that Campbell would be honest with himself and give up play-calling if he didn’t think it was working.

That’s also a superpower. Because plenty of NFL coaches don’t possess that kind of humility and introspection. But you don’t have to take my word for it. After all, I’m just a mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper.

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

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