Detroit Lions reaping rewards of how Dan Campbell assembled his staff

Dan Campbell has filled his coaching staff with former NFL players, like he is, and the Lions are reaping the rewards.
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When Dan Campbell was hired as the Detroit Lions head coach in 2021, he was probably best-remembered for what he did in first practice as the interim head coach of the Miami Dolphins in 2015. But others surely had some vague memory that he also played in the league, having played 10 seasons as an NFL tight end for three teams-including the Lions.

In his memorable for some other reasons introductory press conference, Campbell mentioned that Aaron Glenn was going to be his defensive coordinator. Glenn was going to follow Campbell from the staff in New Orleans, and NFL fans of a certain age surely remember him a three-time Pro Bowl cornerback over a 15-season career.

Glenn was only the start of the first staff Campbell assembled, filled with former NFL players like he is. Wide receivers coach Antwaan Randle El. Quarterbacks coach Mark Brunell. Running backs coach Duce Staley. Offensive line coach Hank Fraley. Offensive coordinator (now former-offensive coordinator) Anthony Lynn. Linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard. More recently, and on the current staff, tight ends coach Steve Heiden, running backs coach Scottie Montgomery and defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend.

Campbell is absolutely a player's coach. But he seem to intrinsically realize he needed assistant coaches who could also connect with players on a deeper level.

That strategy has born fruit. The Lions have won 21 games over the last two seasons, and 20 of their last 27 regular season games.

Lions reaping rewards from how Dan Campbell assembled his coaching staff

Eric Woodyard of ESPN recently took a deep dive into Campbell's coaching staff. A story from tight end Brock Wright, regarding Heiden early in training camp last year, points to exactly why Campbell wants former players on his coaching staff.

"We were kind of struggling early on in training camp and him, having played the position for so long, he had so many different technique ideas and drills and things to help us with," Wright said of Heiden. "It really helped us hammer that down early on in the season and improve on it for the rest of the year."

Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who's own playing career did not extend beyond college, knows the value of having all the former NFL players around him on the Lions' coaching staff.

"It's instant credibility with the players," Johnson said. "[The players] might not know the coach very well, but the fact that he played at a high level in this league, I do think that speaks volumes for the respect factor early on."

Lions' Hall of Famer Calvin Johnson echoed the impact of having a coaching staff around Campbell that's full of former players.

"A big part of that is Dan himself, being a player turned coach and him surrounding himself with a bunch of player-coaches on his staff," said Johnson. Players have no choice really but to dial in when you have somebody that's been there, done that and did the things that you're trying to do and they're teaching you how to do those things.

Campbell noted it's not sheerly about having former players on his staff. Being a former player hardly assures someone can be a good coach, of course. Campbell also noted what he learned from former Saints and current Broncos' head coach Sean Payton about having good chemistry as a staff, beyond coaches having coaching ability.

"It's not just that you're ex-players, they have to be the right players that are ex-players," Campbell said. "Just like, just because a coach has not played in the NFL, doesn't mean he can't coach -- he's not a damn good coach. He's got to be the right coach. So, it's about the right person who is the right coach. But you've still got to earn your respect. You have to earn the respect of the players."

Campbell has not had many misses with his assistant coach hires, and even those misses were corrected pretty quickly.

All in all, players can benefit a little extra from having former players coaching them. The results the Lions come to have on the field is all the proof that's needed to show Campbell's instinct to assemble a staff the way he has was right, and he has found the right former players to fill his staff.