The Lions' old head coach made Detroit a no-way destination for a lot of free agents. Their new one might do just the opposite. Dan Campbell wasn't wasting time in his opening press conference Thursday.
The guy makes you want to run through a brick wall ... then rebuild that wall so you can run through it again. His former players in New Orleans and Miami describe him as the kind of coach you want to fight for. Campbell described the Lions' new mentality like this:
"This team is going to be built on, we're going to kick you in the teeth. And when you punch us back, we're going to smile at you. And when you knock us down we're going to get up, and on the way up we're going to bite a kneecap off. We're going to stand up and then it's going to take two more shots to knock us down. And on the way up, we're going to take your other kneecap. And we're going to get up and it's going to take three shots to get us down. And when we get up, we're going to take another hunk out of you. Before long, we're going to be the last one standing."
Campbell has the presence to back up his words, and a southern baritone voice that makes them ring true. He's 6'5, 265 pounds and looks like he could play in the NFL this weekend. He did play in the NFL for 11 years, doing the dirty work at the tight end position. That gives him credibility. It garners him respect.
Respect was a problem for Matt Patricia. He didn't show enough of it to his players in his first season in Detroit, so they showed him little in return. In the process, he alienated several of the team's stars -- Darius Slay, Golden Tate, Quadre Diggs -- and ultimately forced them out of town. Which ultimately cost Patricia his job.
Campbell isn't easy on his players. He's not soft. But he makes a point of connecting with them by getting to know them, by finding out 'what makes them tick.' He wants to know who they are and where they're from. If they're late for a meeting, he wants to know why. Not that he'd excuse it.
"I would blow my top and have a problem. But I would sit down afterward and say, "What’s going on? Is there something I need to know?’ and let's find out," Campbell said. "Because look, let’s be honest now, these kids nowadays – these men – they got a lot going on. They have a lot of stress put on them."
The easiest way to attract free agents is to win. Location helps too. For a last-place team in a small market like Detroit, an engaging head coach is the next-best selling point. A likable head coach. A head coach with positive reviews. The Lions appear to have that in Campbell, and they appear to have something similar in new GM Brad Holmes.
As Campbell pointed out, he and Holmes both come from winning programs. That should appeal to free agents, too.
"We've seen success, we know what it looks like, and man, we got the right people in place here to get it done. And you talk about -- our facilities are outstanding. These are outstanding. And maybe I'm recruiting free agents right now. Who knows, right? You never know," Campbell said. "But I'm serious, we have top-notch facilities. They spared no expense to make sure the players have everything they need to have success."
Look, the Lions aren't going to fix things through free agency. Holmes has already made that clear. They will build the team through the draft. But free agency is an essential tool for any team, especially when it comes time to supplement the foundation that's in place.
If the Lions make any big signings this offseason, expect those to come on defense. Both Campbell and Holmes acknowledged the obvious: that side of the ball needs help.
"Let’s call a spade a spade, there’s probably more pieces offensively than defensively that super fire me up. That’s tentatively how I feel," Campbell said. "But I also know this, man. There’s always the ability to hit on a good draft and sign a few free agents that you feel like believe the same way that you do as a program and come from winning programs and fit a role, and listen, some things can happen. You can make things a little more positive than maybe the perception is in the spring."
We'll see what kind of appeal the Lions have in free agency in a couple months. It likely won't be much. But it should be more than before, maybe even much more, judging by Campbell's first impression.