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More than a ‘big meathead,’ Dan Campbell has resurrected the Lions

Dan Campbell has led Detroit on a path of steady improvement since he took over in 2021. Now, the Lions host their first playoff game in 30 years Sunday against the Rams. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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DETROIT — Dan Campbell stood before the Detroit Lions, delivering his usual address at the team hotel on the eve of game day. The players had come to expect anything from their coach. His eyes might turn glassy with tears. Spittle could form at the edges of his mouth. He may wave his hands so fiercely that it could make someone suspect his Himalayan forearms had grown gargantuan from the burden of keeping his hands attached. But they had never seen what happened on that night last season.

As Campbell spoke, a false tooth popped out of his mouth and dropped to the ground. Hardly pausing his speech, Campbell bent down, pinched the tooth between his fingers and popped it back into place.

“It doesn’t even faze him,” Detroit linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “We were like, ‘What in the world?’ He just kept going like nothing happened.”

When Detroit hired Campbell after the 2020 season, he inherited a team in disarray and a franchise ensconced in failure. The Lions had gone 14-33-1 in their previous three seasons. Their franchise quarterback, Matthew Stafford, had demanded a trade. They had cycled through eight head coaches (plus three interims) over three decades since their last playoff victory.

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In the face of every challenge, Campbell just kept going. On Sunday night, Detroit will host a playoff game for the first time since January 1994 — against the Los Angeles Rams and Stafford. With General Manager Brad Holmes’s savvy personnel moves providing a foundation, Campbell has led the Lions to their first division title since 1993, nine years before the formation of the NFC North.

As he transformed the Lions from perennial cannon fodder to ascendant Super Bowl aspirant, Campbell has become one of the NFL’s main characters: the hulking, goateed, overcaffeinated former tight end who extolled biting kneecaps at his introductory news conference and leads the league in emotional postgame locker room speeches.

The men who play for Campbell do not deny the truth in his reputation. But they also absorb the substance beneath his persona. Campbell’s defining trait may be that he cannot help being his genuine self at all times. “What you see when he’s interacting with the media, people are like, ‘Oh, he said this — ha ha, so funny,’ ” Lions left tackle Taylor Decker said. “But that’s genuinely how he is. That’s how he talks. That’s how he acts.”

Campbell has turned around the Lions with overlooked football intellect, unwavering authenticity and profound belief in himself. His 10 years of NFL playing experience allow him to relate to players. His consistency allows him to maintain authority.

“He creates that feeling that he’s a teammate of yours,” defensive lineman John Cominsky said. “You know he’s the coach, but he’s like that fiery teammate. He makes everybody buy in because everybody wants to kill for that guy and play for that guy and get wins for that guy.”

Over Campbell’s brief tenure, the Lions have essentially been three different teams. In his first year, they were still a doormat finding their way with a quarterback, Jared Goff, whose confidence required restoration. In his second season, they methodically turned from a competitive team that squandered close games into a burgeoning power. This year, they have risen to the top of the league.

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In each phase, Campbell has not altered an approach built on toughness and competition. The Lions practice with their starting offense against their starting defense, and Campbell puts starting positions up for grabs on a weekly basis.

“You’ve got to work for it,” he said. “You can’t just say that you want to be great, can’t just say that you want to be a champ. You can’t just say that we’re going to do this. You have to go work, man. … You gain confidence out there in practice when you mess stuff up, then you get coached on it and correct it.”

With the possible exception of Goff, the Lions have not added any outside players who could have been considered stars before they arrived in Detroit. Their rebuild has been strikingly insular; almost all of their best players were drafted under Holmes and Campbell.

“He brings a certain personality type into this locker room,” Cominsky said of Campbell. “He looks beyond some of the tangibles that other organizations look at. They’re thinking about personalities and compatibility within the locker room — what’s going to be the strongest unit of guys?”

Many current Lions endured Campbell’s maiden season, which began 0-10-1 and ended with three victories in the last six weeks. “Trust me, guys,” Campbell would tell them. “We’re going to eventually be where we want to be.”

Goff credited Campbell’s “ability to stand in front of the room in the face of adversity and the face of challenges and be able to be the same guy every day and speak confidently to the room and never lose belief in us when things were bad,” he said. “And they were bad there early on. That speaks to who he is and why we believe in him and why we trust him.”

“Football can be complicated at times,” said right tackle Penei Sewell, the first Lions draft pick under Campbell. “People forget about the simple parts. People got to hit. People got to tackle. People got to run to the ball. His philosophy kind of fits everybody in this locker room.”

Campbell’s opening news conference entrenched a reputation that has stuck to him: “Oh, yeah, he just seems like a big meathead,” wide receiver Josh Reynolds said, smiling. When asked about Campbell’s football acumen, Decker smirked.

“He doesn’t care if you don’t know that he knows,” Decker said. “He is very, very smart with his X’s and O’s. He knows ball. People just think he’s a macho man coach, but he’s very smart. He leans into it a little bit. He’s like: ‘You guys can think we’re just big dumb guys and we’re going to ram our head into a wall. But we know how to play football. We know how to coach football. We know how to scheme.’ He understands all of it.”

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In 2021, Campbell took over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn after the Lions started 0-8. During Campbell’s nine games as the play caller, Detroit went 3-5-1 and averaged 21.2 points, compared with 16.8 under Lynn. Campbell’s fourth-down aggression hews closer to modern analytical principle than most. During walk-throughs, Campbell will sometimes halt practice and instruct the defense to line up in a specific coverage and front structure so he can determine how that alignment would react to a certain kind of presnap motion. Some of the Lions’ innovative plays have grown out of such moments.

“It’s just like that just popped in his head, and he was going through it, and he did it all on the field,” Decker said.

Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has become perhaps the NFL’s most coveted head coaching candidate because Campbell identified his capability — twice. Johnson was a low-level offensive assistant with the Dolphins when Campbell became Miami’s interim coach in 2015, and Campbell promoted him to tight ends coach. In Detroit, Campbell again chose Johnson to coach the position he played. Then he turned his offense over to him after his first season.

Campbell empowers assistants by “creating a system for us all to operate in,” Lions defensive backs coach Brian Duker said. But he also lends insight, dropping into meeting rooms to assist without undermining his staff. He can explain to Duker how an offense would adjust its routes or blocking schemes against a specific coverage, which helps him coach players on what they can expect. “From a day-to-day standpoint, his intellect does not get enough coverage,” Duker said.

After the Lions committed seven turnovers in consecutive November games, Campbell emphasized the need for ball security. But he didn’t make it only the players’ problem. He made it a coaching imperative to point out flaws on video and demonstrate better technique at practice.

“We’re not going to just yell harder,” Campbell said. “We’re going to give substance.”

At the start of this season, Campbell was one of nine head coaches who had played in the NFL and one of just five who had played in the 2000s. He stocked his coaching staff with former players. He understands the physical and mental demands that players feel. Fellow Saints assistant Mike Nolan, said Campbell would push back against Sean Payton’s practice schedule if he felt the players needed more rest. Uniformly, Lions players said they accept Campbell’s demands because they trust they will work.

“When he says something, you listen because he knows what he’s talking about,” tight end Brock Wright said. “And he’s done it.”

“Every time he speaks to me,” Sewell said, “it hits differently.”

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Campbell’s team meetings have grown legendary among players. They range from inspirational to comical. Before one practice midseason, when NFL players bodies’ are a compendium of aches and bruises, Campbell showed a clip from the 1990s Damon Wayans comedy “Major Payne.” The titular character confronts a soldier who has been shot in the arm. He offers to show the wounded man a trick to take his mind off the pain — and proceeds to break his fingers.

“It was pretty much: ‘I know your body hurts. You got to do it,’ ” Reynolds said.

Cominsky vividly remembers what Campbell told the team before the Lions’ first training camp practice back in the summer. He wrote it in a journal that he keeps in his locker. Campbell explained that the Lions’ 8-2 finish to 2022 had put them on the map, had placed them on the precipice of where Campbell always believed they would go. Opponents would no longer overlook the Lions, Campbell insisted. They would instead try to hunt them. And that would not deter Dan Campbell.

“If you want to hunt us, you’re not going to have to look far,” Campbell told his team. “Because we’re right on your front porch.”