DETROIT — For Jared Goff, this offseason has been different for a number of reasons.
Then, when he glanced around the Lions’ practice facility during OTAs, he noticed a uniqueness from the coaches on the sideline directing the action — they are all former NFL players.
“It’s been interesting. I’ve had former players coach me in the past, but never this many,” Goff said. “It’s cool. It’s fun. A guy like [Antwaan] Randle El, he played at a high level for a long time and knows what he’s talking about and the same way for everyone else. But, at the receiver position, he’s done it. You’ve seen it.
“Duce [Staley], he’s done it. Hank [Fraley], he’s done it. Dan [Campbell], obviously has done it. A-Lynn [Anthony Lynn], done it. All these guys have done it at a high level playing it, so it’s easy to communicate and easy for them to understand it from a player’s view.”
Starting with first-year head coach Campbell, the Lions have seven former NFL players on their staff. Lynn is the offensive coordinator, Aaron Glenn the defensive coordinator, Mark Brunell coaches the quarterbacks, Staley coaches running backs, Hank Fraley coaches the offensive line and former All-Pro and Super Bowl champion Randle El coaches the receivers.
Detroit is the lone NFL team to have head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator each filled by former NFL players — and the roster already feels their presence.
“Most definitely, because they’ve been through it,” Lions running back Jamaal Williams said. “And, you can think ‘What can they say that’s gonna benefit me?’ but it’s like ‘Oh yeah, because they played in the league,’ or ‘Oh, yeah, because of their accolades.’ So, it’s like you can’t diss them for their experience, but coaches who’ve played, yeah, because they’ve been through it. They know.”
Rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown calls it “awesome” to learn from so many different football minds who actually played the game.
“I’m with the receiver coach [Randle El] the most, and he’ll say things every now and then where you’ll know he played,” St. Brown said. “He understands coverages and little things in between the routes to help us. It gives us knowledge, so you can tell that our coach played in the league and it’s awesome to have a coach like that.”
When Campbell was hired by the Lions in January, he became one of six former NFL players to currently be a head coach, joining Sean Payton (Saints), Mike Vrabel (Titans), Frank Reich (Colts), Ron Rivera (Washington) and Kliff Kingsbury (Cardinals). The 6-foot-5 native of Clifton, Texas, enjoyed a 10-year run as a tight end from 1999-2008, with the New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys and a stint with the Lions from 2006-08.
He decided to bring in a diverse coaching staff with a wealth of knowledge to lean on. Campbell said “you’re only as good as the people around you.”
“When you’re fortunate enough to know enough resources like I do and be around some great coaches, these things do pop up, and they’ve been through them, so you think about asking them,” Campbell said. “Does that mean I’m going to hit something that I have not seen or may not be ready for? It’ll happen, you’re right. But I think you draw off the experiences [from] those around you and those men that you trust.”
Lynn was a head coach with the Los Angeles Chargers from 2017-20.
Staley is a Super Bowl champion as a player and coach, and he demands respect from younger guys who are trying to reach that level, such as Philadelphia native D’Andre Swift, who grew up watching Staley with the Eagles.
“I watched him a lot growing up, as well, so he’s got the knowledge and everything. He played in the league for a long time, so he knows what it takes,” Swift said. “So, I think he’s definitely going to take me to the level I’m trying to get to. His energy he brings every day, he’s the type of coach you want to play for.”
Being added to the Detroit coaching staff was a full-circle moment for Randle El. As a player, in Super Bowl XL — which was played at Ford Field — his 43-yard reverse touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to wide receiver Hines Ward helped Pittsburgh beat Seattle 21-10. Those experiences have dictated how he deals with players and why they listen.
“That experience as a group, when you bring it and put it on the table, you know what is expected, you know what you should be saying to your players to get them going, and then taking it and putting it together to put it on the field,” Randle El said.
A full rebuild has begun in Motown after the firing of defensive-minded head coach Matt Patricia, who fielded the worst defense in the NFL last season. In comes Campbell, with defensive coordinator Glenn and others, in addition to first-year general manager Brad Holmes, who are not trying to sell a dream to guys on the team. Instead they’re keeping it brutally honest.
“I’m a product of Bill Parcells, and the one thing that I realized that I took from Parcells is always being truthful with players, Glenn said. “And even if the truth can create bad vibes between you and the player, but at the end of the day — and I knew this with Bill — at the end of the day, I respect him because he told me the truth.
“Now, it gave me a chance to work on the things I need to work on. And as a player, you can’t kid yourself on that. When a coach is telling you exactly what you need to work on, why do you think he’s sitting there lying to you? He wants to win. So, he’s gonna tell you everything you need to do to put you in position to be successful, so I do that same thing with the players.
Like Goff, former Rams defensive lineman Michael Brockers wasn’t around for the old regime but, so far, he likes the process in Detroit.
“The biggest thing about coaches and players is that we have to have great communication and [Glenn is] 100% the best communicator that I’ve kind of been around,” Brockers said. “Being a player that’s played in the league, he has a understanding of that perspective of being a player, so when you ask him a question or something like that, he can definitely get to answering your question on what you need to be answered.
“So for me, I think the biggest thing about this coaching staff is how they go about coaching and just the process of playing the game and having energy and love for the game.”