As soon as the season ended, national media sites started ranking destinations for coaching and general manager hires. The Detroit Lions, coming off a 5-11 season with only five picks in the upcoming draft and a roster filled with holes from top to bottom, consistently came in near the bottom of each and every one of those lists.
And while the hirings of general manager Brad Holmes and head coach Dan Campbell didn’t exactly send shockwaves through the NFL, the Lions have done an amazing job building a supporting cast around them. Nearly every single coach or front office assistant hired was coveted by at least one other team.
Duce Staley, the team’s new running backs coach/assistant head coach, chose the Lions despite having interest from the Bears. Offensive line coach Hank Fraley stayed in Detroit after interviewing with the Steelers and Bengals. As did tight ends coach Ben Johnson, despite interest from the Jaguars. Aaron Glenn was a head coaching candidate for the Jets and drew interest from the Bears and Jaguars as defensive coordinator. John Dorsey is one of the most well-respected talent evaluators in the league.
So the question is: How are the Lions doing this? The Lions don’t have a lot of draft assets. They don’t have a promising roster with a bunch of young talent. In fact, one of the only reasons this job even looked slightly attractive was the presence of a franchise quarterback, and he’s about to get traded.
One theory is the Dan Campbell factor. Lions team president Rod Wood mentioned this specifically when introducing Campbell to the media last week. In conversations he had with Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, Wood said he was told Campbell would be one of the most effective coaching recruiters in the league.
“Dan is the kind of head coach that coaches are going to run to Detroit and want to be on his staff,” Loomis told Wood. “He will attract people because they’ll want to work with him.”
Maybe that’s it. Sometimes the simplest answer is the right one. After all, we all saw Campbell’s introductory press conference and how much it motivated a Lions fanbase that was still mourning missing out on Robert Saleh.
But there has to be more to it than that. Rah-rah speeches are great for stirring up a fanbase, but I’m not sure they can convince people to take a professional risk. So here are some other ways to make sense of the Lions’ impressive staff.
Lions taking advantage of mass exoduses
The Philadelphia Eagles are going through a huge change after the controversial choice to fire Doug Pederson late in the coaching cycle. After being passed on as a head coach candidate, Duce Staley wanted out, and the Lions jumped on that opportunity immediately. Special teams coordinator Dave Fipp apparently wanted out, too, and despite initial blocks to interview him, the Lions got aggressive and landed the veteran coach. Dorsey came from Philly, too, and perhaps he didn’t like the direction the franchise was going.
Detroit also took advantage of a shaky situation in Chicago. While the Bears made a tough choice to keep Matt Nagy and his struggling offense, the rest of the coaching staff appears to be jumping ship. Defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano retired, and the Bears have already lost their running backs coach, their QB coach/pass game coordinator, defensive line coach and linebackers coach this offseason. The Lions were the ones to swoop in and steal their linebackers coach, and they’ve also pitched better opportunities to Glenn and Staley, both of whom had interest from Chicago. The Lions appear to have some sort of cohesive plan with their staff. The Bears... eh... not so much.
The promise of patience
The minute news broke that Dan Campbell had gotten a six-year deal from the Lions, it was clear Detroit was going to see this entire process out. This will not be a turnaround that takes place in a year or two, so it will require patience from everyone involved. The Matthew Stafford trade made that even clearer for any doubters.
Given the nature of this business, there is nothing you can provide a coach that is more valuable than the promise of time. The long hours of the job are stressful enough, but having to move every two or three years can take its toll on a family. If the Lions are pitching these coaches a plan that involves a full commitment for at least three or four years, that could be enough for a coach simply looking to settle down a bit.
Of course, neither of these options fully account for some of these hires. For example, Aaron Glenn, someone who is on the verge of a head coaching gig, doesn’t really need patience. A year or two with a solid defense, and he may make that jump. So it would seem like going to a Bears team with a solid defensive corps would make more sense than Detroit—a team with very little defensive talent. Maybe that’s where Campbell the recruiter came in.
Regardless, the Lions promised a thorough process and a wave of good coaches coming to Detroit. On paper, they’ve delivered on that promise. Maybe they knew something many national pundits didn’t at the beginning of this process.