'I'm not a system guy': Lions' Dan Campbell keeping an open mind on offensive schemes
Dan Campbell oozes old-school. Whether it's the coaches he played for, his gravely voice or his colorful descriptions of the attitude his team will project, the Detroit Lions coach is, if nothing else, a throwback.
But the NFL has evolved, even in the 11 years since Campbell hung up the cleats as a player. Teams are throwing more than ever and analytics are now a bigger part of almost every franchise's decision-making process.
So as Campbell, Detroit's new motivator-in-chief, embarks on building a coaching staff that will provide the X's and O's expertise to the operation, we must parse through what he's saying to figure out what the Lions might look like in 2021 and going forward, particularly on offense, where the team will have a new coordinator.
First and foremost, Campbell made it clear he isn't married to a specific scheme, which, in turn, won't limit his options when building out his staff.
"I’m not a system guy," Campbell said. "I’ve been through all of them, I’ve seen all of them, so I’m not caught up on that. I’m going to find the best coordinators that are going to come in, and he’s going to have a vision of how he wants to run it with mine. There’s concepts that I know work, that we did well (in New Orleans), that I’m going to implement and want to implement. But other than that, let’s put our guys in the best position to have success. That’s what I’m about."
There's a perception, because he was groomed as a block-first tight end under the tutelage of R.C. Slocum at Texas A&M and the legendary Bill Parcells in the NFL that Campbell will want an offense that will be run-heavy.
That philosophy, of course, runs counter to the majority of modern NFL offense. But that's not really what Campbell is about. He even acknowledged in one of his answers it's a passing league.
Still, don't kid yourself, Campbell definitely wants the Lions to be able run the ball, just not in the sense there's a specific number of carries he needs to see each week. It's more about being able to set a physical tone when needed, particularly given the challenges presented by playing in the NFC North.
"There’s a reason it’s the Black and Blue Division," Campbell said in an interview with the NFL Network on Friday. "Look, we’re going to be fortunate to play nine indoor games — I guess that’s right, maybe 10 — to where we know we’re going to be on turf. That’s a good thing, so you can kind of tool that way. But I know this, man, you’ve gotta go to Chicago, you’ve gotta go to Green Bay. Those aren’t easy places to play, especially in the winter up here.
"You start getting into November, December and the playoffs, January, man, if you can’t run the ball, and you’re not able to move people up front, and you’re trying to throw the ball into a 30-mile-per-hour wind, you’re going to have a problem," Campbell continued. "That’s a reality. I think there still needs to be this element of toughness. I do think you have to be able to run the ball."
For the past five seasons, Campbell has had the benefit of working under Sean Payton, another branch off Parcells' tree, and one of the game's brightest offensive minds for the better part of two decades.
In those five seasons operating under Payton in New Orleans, Campbell not only rounded out his skill set to earn this head-coaching opportunity in Detroit, he's also got a first-class education in keeping up with the league's offensive trends.
"When you’re with Sean Payton for five years, which is another reason I hooked back up with him, man, you learn a lot about the game," Campbell said. "You learn a lot about the way this league has trended, the players that are coming out of college, the skillsets that they have and, ultimately, it’s about putting the right guy in the right situation to have success, man. How do you put one of your best players on one of their worst players?"
And that last sentence, more than anything, is the heart of what Campbell is about. Whatever coordinator he brings aboard, schematic rigidity will not be part of the package, because Campbell is about exploiting mismatches.
"We’re going to run a system that puts our best on your worst," Campbell said. "That’s what we’re going to do because that’s what we did in New Orleans. We’re going to find a way to put our guys in one-one-one matchups, whether it’s run or pass. If you’re telling me that our left tackle is better than their right end, and we can run outside zone all day, we’re going to run outside zone, as long as we cut off the back side. Why not? If we can exploit a weakness, we’re going to do it."
Campbell used the specific example of moving D'Andre Swift into the slot if the opposing linebacker couldn't handle the coverage assignment. Campbell further made it clear that he's equally happy opening a game with 10 pass plays as he is with 10 runs if it's clear the opponent doesn't have an answer.
"I don’t want a coordinator who’s going to throw the ball 60 times a game, 50 times a game," Campbell said. "That’s not what I’m looking for. On the flip side of that, I’m not looking for someone to run it 50 times a game. I know there’s this preconceived notion about me.
"Of course I want to run the football, because there’s a mentality about it, there’s a physicality about it, it makes you better defensively, as well, when you do it against yourself in practice," Campbell said. "But, ultimately, I want to find the best guy for the job that fits what I want to do and fits what we’re trying to do here, and can put ourselves in the best situation to have success."