Dan Campbell Year 1 Retrospective

Now that year 1 of the MCDC era is in the books, it's a good idea to look back at the hire, what our reactions were to it, what were our expectations, and how were they realized (or unrealized).

Initially, Robert Saleh was the guy everyone seemed to like. Matt Campbell was another hot name getting kicked around, and Eric Bieniemy was maybe the hottest name for a minute, until people started digging into his past. Dan Campbell's name came up almost as an afterthought. Then Saleh didn't interview well, Campbell VERY MUCH did, and then he suddenly was the frontrunner and then the coach. The Lions were one of the first teams in the market to actually sign their new HC, so clearly they got their #1 target.

My initial reaction was lukewarm at best. Dan Campbell was a tight end's coach. Not a coordinator, not a QB coach. Tight ends. He did have that interim experience in Miami going for him, and he was Payton's main assistant in New Orleans, so he did have some executive experience shall we say. But to me, his time in Miami was a little problematic because he seemed like this old school ground & pound guy. It wasn't just the Oklahomas thing (which he's since explained), it was stuff he said about establishing the run, controlling the clock, etc. His time as assistant under Payton was good because Payton is not conventional, but how much impact did that have?

The intro presser and media blitz Dan Campbell did after the hire got a lot of attention, especially for the kneecaps thing. But listening to the substantive stuff he said, this is what I gleaned - he said he was going to be flexible and focus on playing to his players' strengths and opponents' weaknesses, not be locked into one way of doing things, to be aggressive but not rely entirely on analytics. Character was important, having players with skills but also the right attitude. But we'd heard all that shit before. Patricia said some pretty similar things when he came on, almost word for word in some cases. Words would have to be tested.

I will say I initially had some concerns that Campbell would be like Brady Hoke, who famously didn't even wear a headset on the sideline and was way out of his depth. Campbell made some comments in a few pressers that showed he wasn't just a rah-rah guy (although he definitely was also that), but he had some solid football knowledge upstairs. Some of my concerns about Campbell's ground & pound tendencies were abated.

Going through preseason and the early part of the regular season, Campbell struggled with some things like clock management and getting plays in on time (not sure if that was more him or Lynn though). Sometimes the Lions were aggressive, sometimes too conservative (like rushing 3 vs. Baltimore). We were playing a bunch of rookies, we had a lot of key injuries, and Goff wasn't playing well. The offense was floundering under Anthony Lynn, although Aaron Glenn's defense was playing over its head, considering the injuries. Campbell took play-calling duties from Lynn after the Philly game (Philly was a better team than I thought they'd be, but they're not that good), as you might expect in a game we only gained 228 yds and scored 2 FGs. It sounded like there might have been some communication problems with Goff & Lynn, the play-calling certainly wasn't good... we looked like a bad high school offense.

The first couple of games with DC calling plays were rough. I remembered my earlier fears about DC employing a 1950s offensive philosophy, and they were getting realized. It was hard to blame Campbell much though, although the repeated sprint draws on 3rd & long were getting old and weren't fooling anyone. Goff looked entirely broken, and Boyle was worse. I'm not sure to what extent Ben Johnson was responsible for turning the offense around, but there was a very notable difference in the Vikings game, which coincided with us finally featuring St. Brown as the top receiving target. The play-calling improved as the passing game was more viable, and the play designs were much better.

It's important to remember that Lynn was still involved in the offense, but it was Campbell calling plays and Johnson operating as the defacto passing game coordinator. The last 6 games of the season, we averaged 10 more points per game and 50 more yards than we had in the previous 11 games. We went 3-3 in that stretch, getting wins over teams that would finish with a combined .627 winning percentage. Granted, one of the wins was against a team that rested its starters in the 2nd half, but we had the lead at halftime already & had more than our share of injuries, so it was hardly a hollow victory. The yards and scoring jump was like moving from a bottom-3 offense to a mid-tier offense, while missing 2 of our top offensive weapons for most of those games.

By the end of the year, the clock management issues all but disappeared, the delay of game penalties from not getting the play called in time were gone... Goff was playing at a Kirk Cousins level. I'm not one to believe in momentum carrying from the end of one season to the start of another, but that's not what we're looking at here. We're looking at the growth of the coaching staff and improvements the players, especially the young players, made down the stretch. With Lynn out, it's probably some combination of Ben Johnson & DC designing the offense and calling plays, and that worked out pretty well in weeks 13-18. Amon-Ra St. Brown emerged as a legit #1 WR. Goff finally looked comfortable running things out there. And above all, this team bought into Dan Campbell and what the Lions are building.

There are still some things to figure out, like what to do at OC (although I think that's pretty straight forward), who to re-sign, who to cut, who to get in FA, and the draft. We'll need to get healthy, namely Okwara, Okudah, and Ragnow. But this does feel like the franchise is turning a corner and not just riding a wave.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Pride Of Detroit or its writers.