Why Players Love Lions Coaching Staff


  • Former NFL player Dan Campbell led the Detroit Lions to the NFC Championship Game in 2023.
  • Campbell has filled his coaching staff on the Lions with former NFL players.
  • Former NFL players winning Super Bowls as head coach are few and far between.

NFL fans who have a memory that goes back past the last decade first met Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell when he was roaming the gridiron as one of the toughest players in the NFL in the 2000s while lining up at tight end.

NFL fans with a short memory know Campbell as the man behind one of the biggest stories in the NFL in 2023 after the Lions advanced to the NFC Championship Game by winning a playoff game for the first time since 1991.

Campbell has built a coaching staff around him that includes nine former NFL players, which has been a hit with players on their current roster, according to offensive coordinator Ben Johnson (via ESPN’s Eric Woodyard):

It’s instant credibility with the players. (The players) might not know the coach very well, but the fact that he played at a high level in this league, I do think that speaks volumes for the respect factor early on.

Along with Campbell, former NFL players on the Lions’ coaching staff include a pair of Super Bowl 40-winning former Pittsburgh Steelers as well as a bevy of other guys with boatloads of NFL playing experience (NFL years as a player and NFL accolades in brackets):

  • Defensive Coordinator: Aaron Glenn (1994-2008, 3x Pro Bowler)
  • Quarterbacks Coach: Mark Brunell (1993-2011, 3x Pro Bowler, Super Bowl 44 Champ, 1996 Passing Yards Leader)
  • Wide Receivers Coach: Antwaan Randle El (2002-2010, Super Bowl 40 Champ)
  • Tight Ends Coach: Steve Heiden (1999-2009)
  • Assistant HC/Running Backs Coach: Scottie Montgomery (2000-2005)
  • Offensive Line Coach: Hank Fraley (2000-2010, 123 Career Starts)
  • Linebackers Coach: Kelvin Sheppard (2011-2018)
  • Passing Game Coordinator/Defensive Backs Coach: Deshea Townsend (1998-2010, Super Bowl 40 and 43 Champ)
  • Assistant Linebackers Coach: Shaun Dion Hamilton (2018-2021)


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Several Lions Players Have Spoken About the Staff

Having someone who knows exactly what you’re going through is a plus

Amon-Ra St. Brown, Antwaan Randle El

Several Lions players have already spoken out about how their positional coach’s experience in an NFL setting has helped them a lot either by simply giving them more confidence or providing them with shrewd insight and tips. Tight end Brock Wright spoke about how Heiden’s experience (148 career games) helped them get the ball rolling early in camp:

We were kind of struggling early on in training camp and him, having played the position for so long, he had so many different technique ideas and drills and things to help us with. It really helped us hammer that down early on in the season and improve on it for the rest of the year.

All-Pro wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown, who recently signed a massive extension making him the second-highest paid WR in the league, also gushed about the advantages of an NFL veteran leading the positional room:

With them understanding how our bodies feel, what we go through, the aches and pains in a year, what practice looks like. So they really understand what it’s like to be a player in this league, and not just being on the field, but even off the field, whether it’s family trying to come to games and things like that, they understand.

Johnson, who isn’t a former NFLer but did serve as a backup QB at UNC, from where he graduated in 2008 with degrees in mathematics and computer science, also spoke about recognizing where holes in your knowledge base are as a coach:

I learned from a veteran coach when I was in Miami that you can’t coach what you don’t know and so for guys like me and probably [Lions special teams] Coach [Dave] Fipp who didn’t play in this league, it’s been a race for growing that library, the volume, what can we learn, what can we be experts on that we can share that knowledge and then our way of teaching that to the players is just — it looks different because you might have Coach Heiden, or Antwaan Randle El out there demonstrating exactly what they want.

The real question now becomes, will this coaching staff full of former NFLers and Super Bowl champs be able to coalesce into a unit that can lead the Lions to their first ever Super Bowl title?

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Being a former NFL player is no guarantee of NFL head-coaching success

Dan Campbell

The idea of the Lions making it to the Super Bowl under Campbell in his fourth season isn’t entirely far-fetched. Detroit led the San Francisco 49ers 24-7 at halftime of the NFC Championship Game before falling apart in the second half in one of the most heartbreaking playoff losses in recent memory.

The Lions return almost their entire team from 2023, including a coterie of young stars like defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and wide receiver Amon Ra St. Brown.

What is far-fetched are the odds of a former NFL player being the head coach on a Super-Bowl winning team.

In the last 30 years, it’s only been done four times; Steelers head coach Bill Cowher (2005), Indianapolis Colts head coach Tony Dungy (2007), Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak (2016), and Philadelphia Eagles head coach Doug Pederson (2018).

As a player, Campbell was on the New Orleans Saints in 2009 but hurt his MCL in the preseason and didn’t play in any games and therefore failed to receive a Super Bowl ring, though his new QBs coach, Mark Brunell, who served as Drew Brees’ backup, did earn a ring with that Saints team.

Townsend and Randle El also both won Super Bowls with the Steelers, with the pair playing key roles on their 2005 Super Bowl winning squad and Townsend sticking around for a second in 2008. Glenn is probably the most accomplished former player of the bunch, as he was a three-time Pro Bowler.

Oddsmakers are taking the Lions seriously as Super Bowl contenders in 2024—at +1,200 odds on BetMGM, the Lions are boasting the fourth-best odds to win a championship behind just the Kansas City Chiefs (+550), 49ers (+600), and Baltimore Ravens (+900).

Source: Eric Woodyard

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference unless stated otherwise. All salary info via Spotrac.


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