The minute Dan Campbell finished building his coaching staff just under a year ago, it raised eyebrows across the sports media world. Intentionally or not, it appeared the Detroit Lions were running a leadership experiment. Just about every coach—from head coach all the way down to each positional coach—was a former player, many of whom had illustrious playing careers. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was a three-time Pro Bowler. Assistant head coach and running backs coach Duce Staley was a household name during his playing days and rushed for over 1,000 yards three times. And, of course, Campbell himself had a decade-long career in the NFL. There’s also quarterback’s coach Mark Burnell, offensive line coach Hank Fraley, wide receivers coach Antwaan Randle El, and outside linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard, all of whom had played in the NFL.
Having a few former NFL players among the coaching ranks is nothing special. But having that be the norm inside the building is extremely rare—if has ever been done at all.
With the Lions having one of the youngest rosters in the NFL, it made some logical sense to have them all mentored by people who have been through the grind before, but after one year of results, did it work?
It’s easy to say no, since the Lions won just three games, but the goal of Year 1 was never to make a playoff or divisional run. It was to create the foundation and develop their young talent. That sort of thing is hard to quantify, but during last week’s exit interviews, a lot of players spoke highly about the coaching staff, unprompted.
Let’s start with defensive tackle Michael Brockers, one of the few veterans on the team who was brought in for a leadership role. One benefit he pointed to, specifically with Campbell, was his ability to meet players’ physical and mental needs due to his own previous experience.
“When it comes to taking care of our bodies, they understand where our mental headspace is throughout the week,” Brockers said. “Some weeks he was like, ‘Man, we’re gonna dial it down a little bit, we’re gonna walkthrough.’ Stuff like that. Players appreciate that, because so many coaches in this league, they don’t play the game. They haven’t played at this level. When they’re just working you, working you, working you. They don’t understand the stress that you go through throughout the week and these coaches do. So that’s why the guys love playing for these coaches.”
Obviously, that runs in stark contrast to the previous regime, who was not-so-subtly criticized by players for often running them too hard and not giving them proper recovery time. Brockers is a good example of the current regime managing his workload throughout the week. As he fought through a shoulder and knee injury most of the season, he commonly either took a day off of practice or was limited. As a result, he only missed one game all season. Though it’s fair to say his play on the field did not quite meet expectations.
T.J. Hockenson, who set a career-high in receiving yards per game in 2021, also credited Campbell—a former tight end—for giving him tips throughout the season.
“He played tight end in the league for a long time and just being able to get his knowledge on things and what he did well and just trying to take tidbits from him and continue that just to move forward,” Hockenson said. “He’s done a really good job with me. We’ve obviously built a really good connection over the last year, just continuing to build that. Hopefully, we’ll be here for a while.”
Cornerback Amani Oruwariye saw a similar growth in his game he attributes to the coaching staff. He came into 2021 with just three interceptions in two seasons. This year, he had six and saw his game get more and more consistent as the season went on. He credits a lot of that to Glenn.
“Just his love for the game and his level of knowledge is remarkable,” Oruwariye said. “Obviously he’s played in the league, he’s done his thing really well, six-time Pro Bowler I think [editor’s note: it was three]. So any kind of information I can get from him is valuable to me. I just like picking his brain. He used to play DB and he was a DB coach, so sometimes he misses actually getting hands-on coaching the guys so I just like pulling him to the side and talking to him.”
And while being able to provide tips and manage a workload are essential parts of the coaching process, the absolute key to being a teacher is communication. Campbell and Glenn are masterful in that area, and having that former playing experience undoubtedly plays into that. Frank Ragnow, who spent most of the season on the sidelines but was at the team facility regularly, was able to witness that from an outside perspective.
“I can’t say enough about him as a coach,” Ragnow said. “How he coaches us, how he communicates, how he keeps everybody ready and coaches everybody the same. It’s incredible, man.”
The coaching staff remains the biggest source of optimism with this team right now. Obviously, the roster still has a ways to go as they enter the “player acquisition phase,” but fans should be able to sleep well knowing that their coaching staff is off to a fine start.