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Dan Campbell wasn’t 2023 NFL Coach of the Year despite memorable Lions season

The Detroit Lions had their most successful season in over fifty years, but Campbell being named the league’s coach of the year became a tough mountain for him to climb with the way his team finished 2022.

NFC Divisional Playoffs - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Despite having a feeling this was going to happen last night, it didn’t seem like there was going to be this much blowback over the NFL Honors.

The uproar was loud in Detroit Lions-centric circles after head coach Dan Campbell finished third in this year’s Associated Press NFL Coach of the Year award, earning a total of 33 points on three first-place votes, three second-place votes, and nine third-place votes. Kevin Stefanski of the Cleveland Browns won the tiebreaker over Houston Texans head coach DeMeco Ryans, earning 21 first-place votes to Ryans’ 20-first place selections. For Stefanski, this is his second time winning the award since he first became the team’s head coach in 2020.

Historically speaking, the NFL’s Coach of the Year award has been a narrative-driven award for those who either ridiculously outperform expectations (Brian Daboll in 2022, Sean McVay in 2017), lead a juggernaut (Bill Belichick in 2007, Ron Rivera in 2015) or like Mike Vrabel in 2021, lead a team to their conference’s No. 1 seed despite having the most injured roster in football.

The problem is that none of those describe the 2023 Detroit Lions, and Campbell’s chances of winning the distinction all but went out the window when his team finished 2022 on an 8-2 run as one of the hottest teams in the league. This year, the Lions accomplished exactly what many had expected them to do—win the NFC North—but they were a relatively healthy football team who had a veteran quarterback starting for them from start to finish. For the two coaches who finished ahead of Campbell, that wasn’t the case, and the narratives took hold.

With a first-year head coach in Ryans and a rookie quarterback C.J. Stroud—the winner of the league’s AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award—this year’s Texans team was tasked with picking up the pieces from a 3-13-1 campaign last season. They responded in a way almost no one could have anticipated, posting a 10-7 record and winning the AFC South despite having a preseason over/under win total set at just 6.5.

The Browns ran through a rolodex of quarterbacks this year, starting five different signal callers: Deshaun Watson, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, P.J. Walker, Joe Flacco, and Jeff Driskel. Watson, the team’s $50 million anchor, played in only six games this season, and the team’s defense had done everything it could to keep the team afloat with a 7-4 record. Stefanski got the absolute most out of a discarded and disregarded Joe Flacco—the winner of this year’s AP Comeback Player of the Year—and went 4-1 over his five starts to propel the team to 11 wins.

In comparison to those situations, the Lions faced little adversity in the way of injuries or uncertainty at the quarterback position. However, does it seem like Campbell deserved to be on more than just 15 of the 50 ballots submitted by AP voters? Maybe, but there were enough other teams that played better than Detroit down the stretch to diffuse the vote thanks to recency bias. Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, winners of seven out of eight in November and December en route to the No. 1 seed in the NFC, stole some votes. McVay’s Rams won seven out of eight themselves to finish the season, their only loss in overtime to the 13-win Baltimore Ravens—the AFC’s No. 1 seed who helped John Harbaugh earn some votes of his own.

Make no mistake, the Lions had arguably their most successful season in my father’s lifetime, but preseason expectations have a lot to do with the Coach of the Year award, and the Lions simply met those expectations to win the division. The only way Campbell’s team clearly exceeded their expectations was the playoff run they went on, and since voting happens before the postseason takes place, there wasn’t enough there to stir up a vote for a team that had their over/under total set at 9.5 wins. This is the territory that comes with a good football team: you’re going to have to remember, this team is good, and they’ve proven to be good for over 30 games the past two seasons, so now they need to be better than good to win awards.

Expectations are sky high, and that’s the unfortunate reality of people taking this football team seriously; they’re not the “Cinderella” story Brad Holmes assured they weren’t in his end-of-season press conference. This is the next challenge that Campbell and this organization will have to navigate. In order for him to win this award, he isn’t going to do it by taking anyone by surprise—he’ll have to keep this team playing at a high level from start to finish without a late-season lull like there was in November.

But if there’s one guy I wouldn’t bet against to climb that mountain and make voters take notice, it’s Dan Campbell.

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