Dan Campbell has the Detroit Lions in the thick of the playoff hunt.
It’s amazing what a difference a few weeks can make.
When October ended the Lions were 1-6, coming off embarrassing road losses to New England and Dallas, and a second-half collapse at home to Miami. Defensive Backs coach Aubrey Pleasant had been fired, and Lions fans were arguing over which quarterback to take at the top of the draft.
It looked like Dan Campbell was another in the long line of failed Detroit Lions head coaches. Our own Adham Beydoun thought perhaps he’d be better off managing a McDonald’s. In fairness to Adham, Campbell famously has a taste for kneecap, which is the primary ingredient in the McRib. It seemed like a good fit.
But now Campbell is the toast of the town, and it looks like he might be a keeper.
The Lions have won five of their last six games, and they’re looking at four winnable games to end the season. National outlets have taken notice of the Lions and Campbell. This could be happening. So let’s take a closer look at his case.
Does Dan Campbell fit the Criteria for Coach of the Year?
Well, here’s the thing. There are no criteria. The Associated Press started handing out the National Football League Coach of the Year Award in 1957, and it simply goes to the coach judged to have had the most outstanding season. The inaugural winner was none other than George Wilson of the Detroit Lions.
But it would be another 34 years before a Lions coach won the award again, when Wayne Fontes took home the hardware in 1991. No Lions coach has won since.
It’s incredibly hard to quantify the actual value of a coach to his team in pro sports. The front office acquires the talent, and the players perform. Coaches are somewhere in the middle. They can talk about decided schematic advantages all they want, and certainly some coaches are better than others when it comes to game planning and in-game management. But awards always come down to a team’s final record, and the narrative surrounding the season.
It’s all Math and Feelings
Though it may be hard to quantify a coach’s impact, there is some pretty simple math involved when it comes to awards. Since 1980, just three coaches have won NFL Coach of the Year without reaching 10 wins in a season.
Joe Gibbs went 8-1 in the strike-shortened 1982 season. Jimmie Johnson won it in 1990 after leading the Dallas Cowboys to a 7-9 record. And Bruce Arians won after taking over the Indianapolis Colts early in 2012 and going 9-3. Johnson is the only coach to win the award without guiding his team to a winning record.
So the Lions have to win at least three of their remaining games for Dan Campbell to really be in the discussion. If they win out, he’s going to get some serious consideration.
And this is where the narrative comes in. Not every 10-win season is the same. Had the Lions started the year 9-1 and then stumbled into the playoffs after finishing 1-6, Dan Campbell wouldn’t get a whisper of recognition for coach of the year.
But do it the other way around and you have a fantastic story of perseverance and overcoming adversity. Call it grit.
And that’s exactly what the Lions have been showing for the past seven weeks. The 1970 Bengals are the only team in NFL history to begin 1-6 and go on to make the playoffs. What this team is doing is nearly unprecedented.
Millions of Lions fans have had their spirits lifted by this team. When was the last time anyone could say that?
Quite simply, if the Lions make the playoffs, Dan Campbell IS the NFL Coach of the Year.
Whether he wins the award or not.