LIONS COACH DAN Campbell bombed into the interview room at AT&T Stadium after his team lost to the Dallas Cowboys on what could charitably be called a technicality, uncharitably a gross refereeing blunder. The game still inside him, he gripped the lectern with both hands, as if holding it down from a storm. His presence, both physical and psychic, hit like a sneaker wave, filling every crevasse in the room. His voice, heavy with the rasp of defeat, sounded like it was being dragged across broken asphalt.

He tried his damnedest to keep from saying what he undoubtedly said before he stormed this room, and undoubtedly said the second he left it. "I don't like to lose, OK?" he said when asked to explain his agitation. His team had run what could objectively be called the perfect play -- a throwback pass from Jared Goff to tackle-eligible Taylor Decker -- on a 2-point conversion with 23 seconds left and the Cowboys leading by one. The officials, apparently confusing Decker with offensive tackle Dan Skipper, ruled that Decker did not report as eligible. And now Campbell's fingers tapped the lectern on both sides, as if they could say the words his mouth couldn't. He blustered for a bit, said he didn't want to talk anymore about it and busted out of the room the same way he came in. The game didn't make sense, so neither did he.

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Campbell is the kind of guy who every football player in history -- at every level -- has played with but not for. Because the Dan Campbell Guy, the one who plays with broken bones and blasts Metallica and is always -- freakin' always -- in the weight room, is almost never the guy NFL owners choose as the face of their franchise. The Dan Campbell Guy is the position coach, or maybe the coordinator, motivating and raging behind the scenes, often holding the whole thing together from the inside out. Nobody wants to hand him the podium. He is never the safe choice, or the political choice, or the choice that allows everyone in the organization to relax.

It's much easier to hire someone who spouts platitudes than the guy who stands in front of his team with cameras rolling and says of the opponent, "It doesn't matter if you have one ass cheek and three toes, we will beat your ass."

There is nothing pretentious about the man, or the way he conducts his business, just as there is nothing pretentious about the business he conducts. Coaches have a vested interest in wrapping the game in complication and intricacy, but its essence remains brute force, stripped of any pretense. And Dan Campbell is football. He understands that it's ugly, and dangerous, and that his players long ago ran the risk/reward calculations -- just as he did over an 11-year career -- and ended up here. This doesn't make him barbaric, necessarily, any more than the game itself is barbaric. It just makes him a realist.

"It's very refreshing to play for someone who doesn't seem to care about the corporate culture," Skipper says. "He's unapologetically him. You can love him or you can hate him, but he is who he is. You never need to question where you stand. You never need to tiptoe. He tells it like it is. He's got so much passion for football, for life, for everything."

I watched Campbell and the Lions over the course of a week, starting with the crushing loss to Dallas in Week 17, to see firsthand how Campbell has refashioned a sad-sack franchise quickly and definitively, from 3-13 in his first season in 2021 to a franchise-tying 12-win season and an NFC North championship in his third. It's the Lions' first division title in 30 years, and it gives Detroit -- a now Lions-obsessed city once rendered despondent by at least a decade of pro sports irrelevance -- its first home playoff game in just as long. And coincidental symbolism doesn't get much more heavy-handed than it will on Sunday night: Rams vs. Lions, ex-Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford back in Detroit for the first time, ex-Rams quarterback Goff looking across the field at Sean McVay.

“He’s unapologetically him," says Lions offensive tackle Dan Skipper. "You can love him or you can hate him, but he is who he is. You never need to question where you stand." AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez

From the start, the task for Campbell was to cast the team in his own image: tough, relentless, at times difficult to parse. Before each Week 18 practice, I watched him go up and down the stretching lines, making contact with every single player -- pats on the back, handshakes, fist bumps, helmet taps, half hugs, hugs, playful jabs to the shoulder.

"He does it every day," Decker says. "Mostly it's just, 'Hello -- let's have a good day.' If you're an undrafted rookie on the practice squad and you have the head coach coming up to you and saying, 'Hey, let's have a good day,' that might mean a lot to you. He gets that."

I watched Campbell coach it like he stole it against the Cowboys -- faking a punt from his own 31-yard line early in the game, going for it on fourth down almost reflexively, refusing to kick an extra point that would have tied the score after the infamous penalty ruined the winning 2-point conversion -- and then heard his players say his confidence in them engenders confidence in themselves. Play sheet holstered to his belt, swinging next to him as he goes up and down the sideline, he coaches carnivorously, unafraid, always aware a series of downs is four and not three.

In the locker room after the Cowboys' loss, I watched Goff have a quiet conversation with Decker about the whole reporting fiasco, and I watched it end with Goff closing his eyes and gently placing his forehead against the wall. A few stalls over, Skipper was telling the world that he would say nothing, lest he get fined.

I watched Campbell, wearing a cap with the Tigers-style old English D atop the word ARMY, meet with the media on New Year's Day, less than 48 hours after that mystifying loss in Dallas, and refuse to rehash the particulars, saying, "Why do you guys want to talk about this? I'm over it. I don't want to deal with it. I'm done. I've got controlled fury. I'm ready to go. I'm absolutely ready to go. We're not going to feel sorry for ourselves. I've got pure octane right now."

I watched him repeatedly say that his roster was constructed in a way that would preclude his players from lingering over the Cowboys' loss, as if he was willing it into existence, and then watched as they proved him right by beating the Vikings in the season finale.

"He does this whole meathead thing very well," Skipper says, "but he's very, very intelligent."

Every game affords a look into the deeper folds of Campbell's psyche. Against the Vikings, Skipper reported as eligible -- legally, for all the world to see -- on a play in which he would normally block. Instead, he drifted into the flat, where Goff threw him a pass that gained 4 yards but seemed to send a larger message. I couldn't decide whether it was a peace offering or a middle finger, but I had a pretty good guess.

ON TUESDAY, LESS than 72 hours after the loss in Dallas, 26 electronic billboards in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Flint began flashing two messages.

The first:


was followed by the Lions' record -- 11-5 -- crossed out and replace by 12-4.

"Pairing up with Dan was such a gift," says Lions QB Jared Goff. "He knew where I was at, and he knew how to get the most out of me." AP Photo/Ashley Landis

ON THE SECOND play of the fourth quarter against the Cowboys, Goff stood in the pocket and got blasted head-on by Micah Parsons just as he released a rocket down the middle of the field, where Jameson Williams caught it in stride for a 63-yard gain. Four days later, in his weekly media session, Goff was asked what it felt like to stand in there and take that hit.

Goff tilted his head a little, as if confused by the question. "I didn't feel the hit -- did I get hit there? I didn't feel that one," he said, totally deadpan. Nobody knew how to react, so Goff laughed to help everyone out. "When you have a big completion, it feels good."

The answer was perfectly Goff: self-deprecating, unbothered, with just the essence of snark. The Jared Goff story is not strictly a Dan Campbell story, except that every Lions story is a Dan Campbell story. Goff was scapegoated -- not his word -- out of Los Angeles after a loss to the Packers in the divisional round of the 2020 playoffs. His relationship with Rams coach McVay had been in a gradual state of deterioration since the Super Bowl loss to New England in 2018. After the loss to the Packers, McVay was asked about Goff. He said, "Yeah, he's our quarterback, for now." Weeks later, Goff was traded to Detroit in a deal that sent Stafford to Los Angeles, where he immediately won a Super Bowl.

The end in L.A. was abrupt and unceremonious, and Goff felt exactly the way it would seem: cast adrift, unappreciated, blamed. He arrived in Detroit two months after Campbell was hired, and the job of repairing the quarterback's confidence began immediately. "When I was traded here, pairing up with Dan was such a gift," Goff says. "He knew where I was at, and he knew how to get the most out of me."

When I ask Goff where he was, he pauses for a moment, as if running the words through his mind. "Pretty low," he says. "Yeah. Pretty low."

Before Goff delved too deeply into the confusion and frustration he felt at the time, he wants it to be known that he understands the perception. "These are first-world problems," he says. "It was a professional bottom for me. It wasn't personal; it wasn't family; it wasn't death. I'm aware enough of that perspective as well. But I was figuring myself out a little bit, figuring out where my career was going to head. I was at a crossroads; it could go either way. And I did a lot of soul-searching, figuring out what I wanted to get out of my career. I had to dig pretty deep there."

Publicly, Campbell seems to abide by the rub-some-dirt-on-it-school of mental hygiene, but Goff says, "Dan stuck by my side. I think he understood what the previous situation had been, and how much meat on the bone we both knew was there to be had. We both knew there was an opportunity here."

Partway through our conversation, after a question about whether the next month might be something of a revenge tour for him, Goff interrupts to ask, with the tone of a probing interviewer, "Are you writing about this for our first-round matchup against the Rams?" The matchup wasn't set by then, but still, I feel seen. He laughs and says, "I've learned some things along the way. But it wouldn't be a revenge tour for me personally. Maybe for our team in some ways. We've been disrespected for years and now we've earned some respect around the league. But for me? No."

He wasn't named to the Pro Bowl and he isn't considered a top-tier quarterback by the many who analyze such things, but Goff finished the season with the second-most passing yards in the NFL with 4,575, less than 50 yards fewer than Tua Tagovailoa. He threw more touchdown passes (30) and fewer interceptions (12) than Patrick Mahomes. Maybe more importantly, the past three years in Detroit have allowed him to escape the notion that he was a creation of McVay, that the voice in his helmet in Los Angeles -- remember the whole pre-Super Bowl discussion about the Rams rushing to the line so McVay could read defenses for Goff? -- was the reason he had success.

"For whatever reason, the narrative everyone wanted to push when he got here was that he wasn't a good player, and everyone wanted to see him fail," Decker says, "It was weird, and I think we've seen that it was baseless. The way he was able to conduct himself on a day-to-day basis as if that wasn't happening in the background is admirable. I have a lot of respect for him, because he was backed into a corner, people wanted to see him fail, and he didn't."

Asked what he learned through his period of self-examination, Goff says, "I figured out I'm a lot tougher than I may have known. Mostly mentally, also emotionally. I learned about perspective, knowing you're more than a football player, knowing that you can bring so much more to the world than just playing football. You don't know that when you're 23 or 24, because you're still learning. But in hindsight, this was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me, to be able to dig deep and see who you truly are. Again, first-world problems. But I had a lot of people helping me out, including Dan. Him believing in me on the heels of essentially not being believed in, it was powerful."

"We’re not going to feel sorry for ourselves," Campbell said after the mystifying loss in Dallas. "I’ve got pure octane right now." Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

A BIG PART of coaching is the art of making the mundane sound profound. When defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn stands at the podium on Thursday and says, "One thing we try to do as a defense is get our best players on the field," it sounds more important than obvious. Roughly 20 minutes later, when special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, in response to a question about Jalen Reeves-Maybin being named to the Pro Bowl, says, "The most important thing to me is always winning the football game, and I really mean that," it sounds earnest enough to signify something deep about his overall worldview.

Fipp, a slight, angular man with a decidedly non-football bearing, told a story loosely connected to Reeves-Maybin's ability to make important special teams plays. "This game is ultimately a players' game," he began. "That's what the NFL is, and also what makes it great is ... guys in the heat of the moment being able to make plays. God, my high school coach told me one time -- a long, long time ago -- we were watching a baseball game at our high school and this kid turned a double play. He snared a ball, turned a double play out of nowhere. My coach looked at me and said, 'Hey, David, I'm just telling you that guy just made a play. One day, you're going to be asked what happened, and you're just going to have to say the guy made a play.'"

Fipp delivers this as if it's code for something, maybe for being released from a hostage situation or a speeding ticket. It drives home how uniquely immune Campbell seems to be from the banalities of the game; the contrast is obvious. His stories during team meetings are legendary for their persuasiveness and occasional irrelevance. The most well-known is the one about dividing NFL teams by their willingness to leave the beach and get into the ocean. The Lions, as the story goes, will be the team that drags other teams into the "dark abyss" and leaves them to drown. "That's a real one, because that talks about who we are," offensive tackle Penei Sewell says.

"I get really fired up when he hits us with these metaphors, like dragging teams into the deep and choking them out," defensive end Aidan Hutchinson says. "It can be a random Tuesday morning, and I'm practically jumping to get out on the field. I feel like there's intrinsic value to that kind of attitude, and everybody in that room feels it."

There are times when his players say the messages fail to cohere. Perhaps it's intentional, like workouts that promote muscle confusion, but there are morning meetings in training camp or during the season where, in Sewell's words, "He'll talk about something totally opposite of what our objective is for that day. It could be about a dog or a plane, anything. He'll talk for a while and then leave his story at the worst time. He'll just stop and say, 'All right: special teams.' We're all looking at each other like, 'Did anyone get that? Is that analogy working for anyone?'"

ON THE FRIDAY before the final regular-season game, there's a crowd around the locker occupied by C.J. Gardner-Johnson. He was medically cleared remarkably quickly after suffering a torn pectoral muscle, and the plan is for him to return to the field against the Vikings in a sort of safety-by-rotation setup. Gardner-Johnson is not keen on the idea.

"Getting into a rotation, I'm cool with it," he said. "But, I mean, how can I say this, I don't want to sound selfish, but I didn't get back early to be in a rotation."

It is the closest thing to a controversy in the Campbell ecosystem. Gardner-Johnson is a member of a subset of pro athletes: the affable egoist. He jokes and laughs with the crowd around his locker, commenting on how much easier it is to deal with the Detroit media than the one he left behind in Philadelphia.

He goes on for several minutes about his role on the team, his belief in himself and his teammates, and his faith in the Detroit media to get it right. As he walks away he says, almost over his shoulder, "I don't got time for media because y'all don't make me no money."

CAMPBELL'S INTRODUCTORY NEWS conference as coach of the Lions immediately established him as a man who is not a character in someone else's script. In discussing his "overall philosophy," he launched into an extended diatribe that sounded a little like a Monty Python skit. The main gist was that the Lions might be knocked down, but they're always going to get up, and in the process of getting up they're going to "bite a kneecap off." The fact that he was wearing a coat and tie while delivering this message didn't distract from the main takeaway: eventually the Lions would be the last ones standing.

They stand now, perhaps ahead of schedule, as a division winner and host of a playoff game. The kneecap business has become something of a joke around Allen Park, the team's headquarters, where they sometimes count the references to it in national reporting about the team. And yes, it's an easy reference point for where Campbell and the Lions were, and where they are now. The fact that it's proved -- in a nonliteral sense -- to be a pretty accurate prediction for the team's fate means it's no longer viewed as the ravings of a football meathead.

"Everything is different here," says running back David Montgomery, who topped 1,000 yards in his first year in Detroit after four in Chicago. "You're allowed to be exactly who you are. When I first heard the man was talking about biting kneecaps, I knew this was going to be a different kind of environment. And right away, as soon as you meet the man, you could see why he'd be biting kneecaps."

Montgomery laughs a laugh of appreciation. "He hasn't tried to adopt that philosophy," he says. "He has adopted it. And we're buying into it."

You can practically see the belief that emanates from Campbell as he wends his way around the field -- cap tilted back on his head, whistle swinging from his neck -- wishing each of his players a good day. He gives off the vibe that he handpicked every guy on the roster, and that he wouldn't trade any one of them for anyone else in the league. "He sets us on the right way," offensive coordinator Ben Johnson says, "and we just follow." They're in this together, for however long it lasts and wherever it takes them, kneecaps and all.