Dan Campbell gave the perfect answer about Detroit Lions possibly losing Ben Johnson

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell could have said a lot of things about Ben Johnson. He could have played it cagey and hidden from the truth. In fact, he could have said nothing at all.

But then that wouldn’t be Campbell. The man is practically incapable of not speaking his mind.

So when it finally came time Monday to discuss the future of the franchise under his stewardship after the kind of midseason comeback that would have made Lazarus jealous, Campbell was asked about the potential – and I believe highly likely – loss of his offensive coordinator to the head coaching ranks.

Campbell charged ahead and fearlessly told us what he thought, performing a live exit interview by reading Johnson’s LinkedIn profile for the whole NFL and then, as a bonus, reciting his reference letter.

“I think a ton of Ben,” he said. “I think he’s — I’ve said it before, I just think he’s extremely bright. He’s creative, he’s organized, he’s a great communicator. I mean he’s got it, and I would do anything I can to help him. That’s the bottom line.

“Of course, I don’t want to lose him, but I’m not going to hold him back either. I would help him any way I can help him.”

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Look, no one knows what the future holds. I believe I’ve heard someone say that before. But if one team — even as unimaginative as the NFL is as a whole — doesn’t hire the mastermind of one of the league’s top offenses, every team deserves its rightful misery after it hires a retread and scratches its head after it all goes south because who would have guessed the NFL changed so much in eight years?

It won’t come to that. Johnson was already a shoo-in for a head coaching job, and that was before he called that audacious hook-and-ladder play late in Sunday’s win at Green Bay on national TV. That wasn’t football, folks. That was Sinatra doing an epic set at the Sands, then shooting his cuffs and closing with “New York, New York.”

But this isn’t really about Johnson. It’s about the other guy. The one who’s sticking around. Campbell doubled down after I asked him if Johnson’s hiring might signal to other coaches that the Lions can serve as a springboard for their careers.

“Yeah, I mean I think all of this, with where we’re trending, I’d like to believe that anybody outside looking in sees what’s going on here and they understand,” he said. “And look, if you want to know, talk to our players, talk to the coaches, talk to the people in the organization. They’ll tell you what it’s like.

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“I mean you guys know it’s (hard) to hide things. And so, I think word gets around and I think yeah, this is a place you would like to be. No matter who you are. I think free agents would like to be here, I think, moving forward. I believe that. I think we’re turning the corner on that. And when you’re a team that’s trending the right way and you play football a certain way, I think that’s appealing. I’d like to believe that.”

I’ve heard this sentiment many times over the years when any team gets the slightest whiff of success. Ultimately what colors any player or coach’s perception isn’t the quality of the team but rather the color and abundance of their monetary offer.

But Campbell does speak some truth in this case. A good reputation never hurts recruitment and, in the Lions’ case under Campbell, the reputation of offering someone an opportunity also holds its appeal.

The other appeal is Campbell, himself. The most common question I get about the Lions involves Campbell’s personality, because outsiders don’t know how much of it is performance.

Is he really like that? Is it just for show?

I think the fun, outlandish part of Campbell is genuine, but it misses the point of the most effective part of his personality. Football players and coaches are used to working for coaches with outsized personalities because something about the sport attracts and fosters loud and large personas.

But the key to Campbell’s success is subtle and strangely obvious. He doesn’t jerk people around.

“Yeah, I feel like it’s just so genuine, you know?” said linebacker Alex Anzalone, who was in New Orleans when Campbell was a Saints assistant. “I feel like players are perceived as, you know, naïve or not really understanding what’s going on behind the scenes or we just see a surface level, but we can see right through it.

“And when you meet Dan, when you talk to Dan, when you’ve been with Dan for years and years and see him talk in front of the (team) room and see how genuine he is, that’s really when you get the buy in from the team.”

Losing Johnson won’t be a small thing for the Lions. But if there’s any reason to believe this rate of winning is sustainable, it’s because of the man who decided to keep Johnson as a holdover from the previous regime in the first place. It’s because of the man who wasn’t afraid to promote him. It’s because of the man who isn’t scared to lose him and wished him well Monday.

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

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