He’s far from perfect, but you can’t question Detroit Lions’ Dan Campbell’s brilliant changes

Detroit Free Press

Coaches reveal themselves slowly to us. Their strengths and weaknesses aren’t really known until games are won and lost over a period of time.

Mostly, though, coaches tell us who they are when they encounter adversity, on or off the field. That’s when all the bravado, all the pomp and promise of the introductory news conference and the sheen of a slick reality television show fades away.

Last week, Dan Campbell showed us who he is more than at any other time during his tenure as coach of the Detroit Lions.

Campbell wrestled with an excruciating decision to fire his second coach in less than a year, then watched that coach’s replacement help guide the secondary to its best performance of the season, which resulted in NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for rookie safety Kerby Joseph. Oh, and he got a win, too.

You can question Campbell’s game decisions during his 1½ seasons on the job, and you’d be right to. Giving the Eagles an extra 40 seconds on their scoring drive by running a play on third-and-1 before the 2-minute warning. Opting for a missed field goal on fourth-and-4 from Minnesota’s 36-yard line late in that game. Going for it on fourth-and-9 at the Patriots’ 32 while trailing just 6-0 in the second quarter.

[ Winless on the road under Campbell, Lions can snap streak Sunday vs. Bears ]

The list goes on and on. I’m guessing you probably could, too, as you throw your palms skyward a few times every Sunday. Obviously, Campbell hasn’t yet unlocked the master tactician level.

What you can’t question is Campbell’s strength, which he slowly revealed to us until it was on full display in Sunday’s 15-9 win over Green Bay. The victory was the latest example of his brilliant ability to make hard adjustments within his coaching ranks, all of which have been successful.

He demoted offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn midseason last year, assumed play-calling duties himself and immediately ended an eight-game losing streak.

He promoted Ben Johnson after the season to OC and saw the offense soar to the top of the NFL’s scoring rankings early in the season and is still more than four points per game more than last season.

He fired Aubrey Pleasant, the defensive backs coach and defensive pass-game coordinator and six days later watched his secondary played an inspired game as the defense intercepted Aaron Rodgers three times and sent him packing with a 53.5, which was his completion rate, his passer rating and probably his temperature after he immunized himself with ivermectin.

Let’s be clear. These moves weren’t easy. They were, indeed, excruciating. It’s clear Campbell agonized over them, especially the firings, because he hired people he trusted and respected and then had to reverse course.

You can argue that a better coach would have never hired them to begin with. But no one ever really knows how any coach is going to work out. Who would have thought a Cooter was a better choice than a Lombardi? The key is having the intestinal fortitude to acknowledge the mistake and fix it.

I asked Campbell on Wednesday about his process for making such hard decisions and whose advice he solicited. His wife, Holly, is definitely a sounding board.

“She’s easy to talk to, talk things out with, because she’ll tell me straight up,” he said with a grin. “I mean, she’s not sugar-coating anything, believe me.”

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General manager Brad Holmes is also a key to Campbell’s process.

“And then, certainly before I do anything I always talk to Brad,” he said, “and just bounce things off of him and tell him what I’m thinking.”

Before he fired Pleasant, Campbell spoke with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn “for a long time” to get his input on the whole situation and then made his decision. Yes, Glenn has been severely underwhelming, but that’s going to be another decision for another time.

Campbell has served as an assistant for some of the NFL greats like Bill Parcells and Sean Payton, among others. So what’s the best advice Campbell has received about firings and making difficult personnel decisions?

“Man, if it’s hard and it hurts it’s probably right,” He said. “So, that one — that and trust your gut and it’s usually can’t go wrong. If it feels like it’s going to be a real hard thing to do, it probably ends up being the right thing.

“So there again you just, you trust in the information, you trust what your eyes are telling you and what your heart tells you and you move on.”

The bottom line on Campbell is his dismal 5-19-1 record. But that can change, and I predict he will find another four wins the rest of the season.

What you can’t change about a coach is his demeanor and his feel for the game and his coaches and players. It’s either there with a coach, or it isn’t. It’s there for Campbell. He has navigated a lot of adversity without letting any toxicity build up and spill over into the locker room or onto the field.

That’s encouraging because controlling a team and leading it to victory is as much about managing the assistant coaches who manage the players as it is about managing field position and the clock. Campbell has proved he can do the former. Now it’s time for him to show us he can do the latter.

Contact Carlos Monarrez: cmonarrez@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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