Dan Campbell fulfilled promise, has Lions on the doorstep of first Super Bowl appearance

Exactly three years ago, on Jan. 21, 2021, Dan Campbell introduced himself as the next Lions’ head coach.

Many people remember when Campbell said he wanted to build a culture of players that might be knocked down, but would “bite a kneecap off” on the way up. The over-the-top tone had skeptics wondering if his style would wear thin on players.

You can ask the players if it has at the NFC Championship game this Sunday.

Not only has Campbell created the team he had envisioned, but he is now on the verge of leading the Lions to their first Super Bowl in franchise history after defeating the Buccaneers 31-23 in the NFC Divisional Round on Sunday.

“To each his own,” Campbell said on Sunday following the game about the criticism he faced after being hired. “We’re going to the NFC Championship Game with that group of guys, alright. And, they love football, they play football.

“That’s what they respect, and they respect their teammates and not anything else. You know, when you’re able to care more about the person next to you than your own self, you can do some pretty special things, and that’s where we’re at with this group.”

When Campbell was hired by the Lions in 2021, they were the laughingstock of the NFL. Detroit had made the playoffs just three times since the dawn of the millennium (2000) and hadn’t won a playoff game since 1991.

Results didn’t come immediately for Campbell and the Lions. In his inaugural year as coach, the team finished 3-13-1. However, the Lions began to show signs of progress in Campbell’s second season.

After starting 1-6 in 2022, the Lions won eight of their final 10 games to finish 9-8. Detroit missed the playoffs, barely, but that momentum carried over into the 2023 season.

This season, the Lions won 12 games and their first division title since 1993 when they played in the NFC Central. Campbell also led Detroit to its first playoff win since 1991 after defeating Los Angeles 24-23 in the NFC Wild Card round.

Now, after the Lions win over the Buccaneers, they will play the 49ers for the chance to play in the Super Bowl and win their first championship since 1957.

After being a target for jeers, Campbell, with the help of general manager Brad Holmes, has turned the Lions into one of the better organizations in the NFL.

“I envisioned we would have a chance to compete with the big boys and that’s where we are at,” Campbell said. “All you have to do is get in. It is about placing yourself in the very best position to get a home game and to get a second home game, and all of a sudden, it gets a little easier.

“If you’re able to get a one seed, you only have to win two games. That’s always the objective. Ultimately, once you get in, it is about matchups and you having to find a way to win. Even if you have to win 2-0, it is ok. A win is a win in the playoffs and here we are.

“And now we get to go to San Francisco, and we know what type of team that is, and we are in a great position, and we have a great opportunity.”

Campbell’s rise to coaching stardom began after his 10-year NFL career [Giants, Cowboys, and Lions] as a tight end ended following a knee injury. He joined the Dolphins as a coaching intern in 2010.

Campbell was then promoted to the team’s tight ends coach in 2011. Four years later, in 2015, in a surprising move by owner Stephen Ross and executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum, Campbell became the Dolphins’ interim coach after the team fired Joe Philbin following a disappointing 1-3 start.

From there, Campbell led the Dolphins to a 6-10 record that season and gained support from players to be retained full-time. Miami decided to hire Adam Gase instead.

That’s when then-Saints coach Sean Payton hired Campbell as an assistant head coach and tight ends coach. He held that position from 2016 to 2021 when the Lions hired Campbell as their coach.

Campbell promised to make the Lions a winner. After the victory against the Buccaneers, he kept his word.

“You have to have a leader that goes about things the right way,” Lions tackle Taylor Decker said about Campbell. “Man, he’s just a genuine person. We trust him, and we love him.

“There’s the clips from ‘Hard Knocks’ or something where he said, ‘Guys, just trust me. I’m doing everything I can to put you guys in the best position possible. I’m not crazy, just trust me and just follow the plan.’

“That’s what we’ve done. We believe in each other, we believe in our coaches and it’s turned into something pretty f–king cool.”