The Detroit Lions are rebuilding.
After a 5-11 season in 2020, the team hired new leadership on and off the field. Owner Sheila Ford Hamp hired Brad Holmes as the new general manager. He came over from the Los Angeles Rams and engineered the trade that sent franchise quarterback Matthew Stafford to L.A. for Rams’ starter Jared Goff and three draft picks.
Hamp also hired head coach Dan Campbell, who spent the previous five seasons as the assistant head coach for the New Orleans Saints. He also went 5-7 as interim coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2015.
Campbell is an NFL veteran. He played parts of three seasons for the Lions and was part of the team that lost every game in 2008. When the Lions introduced him as the head coach in January 2021, he promised the team would adopt Detroit’s identity — tough and resilient.
“He’s a player’s coach, and he brought in former players to his staff. So they certainly know what the player is feeling at any given moment.” — Jamie Edmonds, WDIV Local 4 sports journalist on Dan Campbell’s approach to coaching the Lions.
“We’re going to kick you in the teeth,” Campbell said. “When you punch us back, we’re going to smile at you, and when you knock us down, we’re going to get up. And on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off.”
WDET’s Pat Batcheller spoke with two sports journalists about the changes and challenges facing the Lions in 2021. Read an excerpt of that conversation below, in which John Niyo of the Detroit News and Jamie Edmonds of WDIV Local 4 discuss Campbell’s approach to building a culture of toughness.
John Niyo: To be fair, to the credit of the previous regime, there were a lot of good veterans in here, guys who are hardworking, high-character guys. And so they did have some foundation there to build around in terms of setting that tone in terms of toughness and work ethic. But the rookie class, they look like guys who are going to come in and try to be good, do everything they can to be good. Toughness? We’ll see. I mean, that offensive line is where they’re trying to hang their hat. And we didn’t see a ton of it in the preseason. But that’s certainly the hope is that you’re going to have a physical team that can control the game from start to finish. I don’t know if we’re going to see that this year, though.
Jamie Edmonds: I think that’s what they want. They want the offensive line to be key here. We’ll have to wait and see. [Campbell] also uses the word “grit” a lot. He likes when a guy has grit and he fights through things. I think he said all the right things at the beginning. I think he’s fun in press conferences. Will that translate to wins? I don’t know yet. But coming from a guy who said nothing at the podium to a guy who just wears his heart on his sleeve, that’s fun for us in the media.
Niyo: The key is self-awareness. He was part of the 2008 team. And he was injured for all that season. But he was part of the winless 2008 team. So he understands where the fans are coming from. The messaging has been on point from day one for him in that respect. And then from a media perspective, the honesty has been there. He’s been pretty forthright about “What’s our day-to-day basis? What’s going on?” And so I think that’s appreciated, too. And I think the fans pick up on that as well.
Pat Batcheller: Dan Campbell strikes me as the kind of guy who knows what he doesn’t know. He may be the smartest guy in the room. But he doesn’t have to be because he’s got all these other people who can advise and counsel him. Contrast him to his predecessor, Matt Patricia, who gave off that vibe of “I know everything. I am the smartest guy in the room. Look, I’ve got a pencil in my ear!” Do you get the sense from Dan Campbell that he’s not afraid to say, “I don’t know.”?
Niyo: Absolutely, we pick up on that. But more importantly, I think the players do. The last regime came in and made it clear that nobody there was good enough and it’s “our way or the highway,” etc. He’s come in and, I think, let players know that he understands, that he’s got a staff full of former players. He’s a former player himself, they understand what these guys are doing on a daily basis, and he’s going to have some compassion along the way.
Edmonds: He’s a player’s coach, and he brought in former players to his staff. So they certainly know what the player is feeling at any given moment. I think players enjoy that. Plus, I love his coordinators, Anthony Lynn (offense) and Aaron Glenn (defense). I think those are great pickups. And I think he will defer to them when he doesn’t know something on the sideline.