PHOENIX — Sean Payton has always been a Dan Campbell fan, and that won’t change now that the two are rival coaches in the NFL.
Payton, who was quarterbacks coach of the New York Giants when the team drafted Campbell in 1999 and hired Campbell as an assistant 17 years later with the New Orleans Saints, said at the NFL’s annual spring meeting Monday he is thrilled for the success Campbell had last season in his second year as Detroit Lions coach.
“I felt like we watched like some of the toughest games for Detroit there for a stretch and it was great to see that turn,” Payton said. “We’ve seen a 60-some-yard field goal bounce off the crossbar. I mean, you lose track of the different ways, but he epitomizes grit and toughness.”
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The Lions went 3-13-1 in Campbell’s first season as coach, losing three times on the game’s final play and six times by eight points or less. In one heartbreaker, the Baltimore Ravens beat the Lions when Justin Tucker made an NFL-record 66-yard field goal off the crossbar as time expired after the Lions rallied from a 13-point second half deficit.
Last year, the Lions started 1-6, then won eight of their final 10 games to narrowly miss the playoffs.
They should enter 2023 as the favorite to win the NFC North.
Campbell and Payton have been close for decades, with Campbell playing for Payton on three teams — with the Giants, Saints and Dallas Cowboys — and spending five years under him as an assistant.
Payton hired Campbell as assistant head coach/tight ends coach with the Saints in 2016, after Campbell spent 12 games as interim head coach with the Miami Dolphins.
When the Lions hired Campbell in 2021, he said, “I owe Sean probably more than anybody in this profession.”
“He gave me an opportunity as a player and as a coach, and nobody’s believed in me more than Sean Payton, who knew exactly what I was and what I could do,” Campbell said at the time. “So I’ll never be able to thank him enough. I’ve learned more football under him in my time as a player, but now as a coach, being under him five years, about how you see the game, how you use your staff, how you hire your staff, situational football. When to go for it, when to not, when’s it time to be aggressive, when’s the time to back off. But a majority of the lessons that I have are from him, and so I’ll forever be grateful for that.”
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Campbell said earlier this offseason he was not surprised Payton returned to the NFL after a one-year hiatus, and that Payton is uniquely qualified to lead a Denver Broncos turnaround.
The Broncos have not had a winning record since 2016, the last year the Lions made the playoffs, and are coming off a 5-12 season and three straight last-place finishes in the AFC West.
The Lions will host the Broncos at Ford Field this fall.
“Dan and I were at New York together, we drafted him,” Payton said. “When I got to Dallas, we signed Dan. (Bill) Parcells asked me, ‘Is this a guy we want?’ So we brought Dan to Dallas and then when his career was finished spent a number of years trying to hire him. It’s kind of difficult you know to get a coach who’s under contract and I was finally able to do that.
“He’s smart. He’s tough. He’s passionate. I think we’re in the passion business and certainly Dan is. He’s a tremendous teacher. And he’s someone that communicates extremely well with his players. Like, extremely well. And sometimes it’s not what they want to hear, but I think they appreciate that and it’s really good to see him doing well.”
Contact Dave Birkett at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.