It was January 2021 when new Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell held his introductory press conference. It was a stunning sight. This was one of the key parts of what he said: “We’re gonna 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 gonna get up. And on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off.”
After seeing that press conference, I thought for certain Campbell was a goofball meathead. I basically wrote exactly that. But in retrospect, I am the goofball meathead. Put me in the goofball meathead Hall of Fame.
You are not the dork, Dan Campbell, as I essentially wrote. I am. You are not the blockhead, sir. I am. I am the king of blockheads.
You may attack all the kneecaps you want, Mr. Campbell, because the Lions are 8-2. Not condoning kicking anyone in the teeth but, metaphorically, that is what your team has done to large swaths of the NFL.
You have developed into a remarkable coach and I was a remarkable doofus. Not you. Me. I was the doofus. King of doofuses.
Good people say when they're wr...wr...wr...(clears throat)...wrong. Wrong is the word that I'm trying to say. Like a number of people, I judged Campbell off that presser, and it turns out that was only part of who Campbell was.
This was a classic example of judging a book by its cover. This book should be called: "Shut Up, Mike." The sequel should be called "Shut Up, Mike (Again)."
Campbell has transformed that locker room as fast as any head coach has done in the recent history of the league. That is not an exaggeration. How has he done it? Part of the reason is he's an excellent reader of human beings. He's also much more tactically sound than it seemed he would be from that press conference.
Watch this from the postgame and tell me this isn't one of the best locker rooms in the league:
What's clear is that Campbell's past as a former player helped unite the locker room behind him. He played tight end on the Giants, Cowboys, Lions and Saints from 1999-2009. Being a former player turned head coach can act as an accelerant in a locker room. This is the point former Lions receiver Calvin Johnson made to ESPN in 2022.
"When you have a guy that you’re looking up to as a coach that’s been there and done everything that you’ve done especially (because) Dan played...not that long ago," Johnson said. "He knows exactly what the guys are going through. I think that’s easier for me as a player to look up to a guy like that. Like, ‘Okay I feel you, I can trust you because you’ve been through what I’ve been through.’ I can trust that you’re gonna hold the player’s interest heavy when you’re talking maybe upstairs in the administration. So I think that the guys trust him. I think you’re starting to see that."
There are dangers being a head coach that was a former player. One of them is becoming too much of a buddy to the players instead of a leader. Campbell has found that perfect blend.
Campbell deserves his praise yet my main point from that column remains accurate and important. Campbell behaved in a way that no Black head coach could. If you don't believe that, you're hugely mistaken.
“We’re gonna 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 gonna get up. And on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off.”
New @Lions HC Dan Campbell had quite the introductory press conference 😳 pic.twitter.com/cWJTSFtJAQ
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 21, 2021
Campbell also wasn't as qualified as some other Black coaches in that hiring cycle such as Eric Bieniemy, who was the offensive coordinator in Kansas City, and holds the same position now in Washington.
What would the Lions look like with Bieniemy as head coach instead of Campbell? We'll never know. This isn't Star Trek with alternate timelines.
What matters now is that this Lions team has taken on Campbell's personality. He's more nimble than people like me realized. Campbell embraces players like wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and running back Jahmyr Gibbs. As he should. As we've established by now (and by we, I mean me) there's more to Campbell than meets the eye.
But the Lions are far more than speed and talent and it's because of Campbell. This is a mentally tough team. They eat kneecaps for breakfast and brush off the opinions of chumps like me. They barely beat a bad Chicago team on Sunday with quarterback Jared Goff throwing three interceptions but the Lions won, 31-26, because this team is just hard to keep down. It's their mentality, that hard to crush mindset, which makes them so scary.
That press conference will be a part of Campbell's legacy but there's a good chance that one day it will be viewed as the start of something special. The time when some people saw it, and made a judgment, a wrong one.
And by people, I mean me. The goofy meathead.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell isn't the goofball meathead. I am.