The smartest thing Dan Campbell said after loss to 49ers
Seahawks can learn these 3 lessons from the Lions: Seaside Joe 1794
In their search for a head coach and with each decision that John Schneider makes in the offseason, what can the Seattle Seahawks learn from Dan Campbell’s Lions and the reasons why Detroit may fall short in the playoffs next year after just having their most successful run in three decades?
While the NFL’s talking heads and fans debate his fourth down decisions, the real most important story about Lions head coach Dan Campbell is what he said about his team’s chances of making it back to the NFC Championship game next season: That’s probably not going to happen, according to Campbell.
At times, I have questioned if Campbell is as valuable to the Lions as most have made him out to be but that has nothing to do with “analytics”.
No, for me it’s more about how heavily Campbell leans on his assistant coaches to call plays, including offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who is interviewing with the Seahawks on Monday for a second time, and wondering how Detroit will do if they lose Johnson and/or defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn.
But Campbell’s comments on how Sunday was potentially the closest he will get to the Super Bowl gives me optimism that he’s the right coach to bring the Lions back:
“I told those guys, ‘This may have been our only shot.’ Do I think that? No. However, I know how hard it is to get here. I’m well aware. And it’s going to be twice as hard to get back to this point next year than it was this year. That’s the reality. If you we don’t have the same hunger and the same work, which is a whole nother thing once we get to the offseason, then we’ve got no shot of getting back here.”
Campbell being who he is, I would have expected him to give a rah-rah speech like “We had ‘em where we wanted ‘em and we’ll be right back here next year to get our revenge”, but it turns out he’s much more of a practical realist than that. Even if Campbell’s intentions are to inspire his team by planting a seed of doubt in their brains that will motivate them in the offseason—which by his own admission is what he’s doing—it still tells me that the Lions have a head coach who does understand that a lot of teams that lose the Super Bowl or conference championship end up struggling to get back.
It’s been nine seasons since the Seahawks lost the Super Bowl and they haven’t even been back to the NFC Championship in that time.
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Though the Chiefs have made the last six AFC Championship games—and four Super Bowls—and the 49ers have made four of the last five NFC Championship games—and two Super Bowls—Campbell’s Lions are built different and therefore not as likely to repeat as NFC North champions or playoff-winners.
Why is that and what can the Seahawks learn from the lessons that make the Chiefs and Niners perennially successful as opposed to merely hoping to have your name in the lottery each season?
The obstacles that the Lions face next season
1: Losing a coordinator or two
I’ve always believed that Campbell is terrified of losing Ben Johnson and with Detroit’s season over the offensive coordinator could now accept a head coaching position with either the Seahawks or Moons this week. Lions fans have been holding out hope/delusions that Johnson would definitely rather prefer being Detroit’s offensive coordinator than the head coach of either of these teams, but I’ll be stunned if that happens.
A year ago, Johnson withdrew his name from consideration for jobs in Houston, Indianapolis, and most notably Carolina, as the Panthers were said to be ready to offer the universe if he’d leave the Lions. Johnson was even criticized by many analysts, including Mike Florio, for saying no to teams when he couldn’t be sure if there would be teams interested ever again.
“This could be a factor of, he really didn’t think he was gonna get a job this cycle, right? This is another one of those predictive narratives that people in our business just kind of lazily throw out there. ‘Well, he’s sure to be a hot candidate again next year.’ Are you sure? Byron Leftwich was a hot candidate last year. He ain’t one this year. The world changes quickly in the NFL, every season is different,” Florio said on the show. “When the window is open, you better try to get through it because that window may be slammed shut a year from now, it may be your only chance.”
The name people kept mentioning as an example was Byron Leftwich because he went from a Super Bowl-winning OC to out of the league, but there’s a giant flaw in that argument: Leftwich had little to do with Tampa Bay’s success, especially as compared to Tom Brady and Bruce Arians, the two people most responsible for the Bucs passing game success.
Johnson doesn’t have Tom Brady, he has Jared Goff.
Leftwich didn’t do any play calling, Johnson does all of the play calling.
Why did Dave Canales get a head coaching position after one season as Tampa’s offensive coordinator but Leftwich was out of the NFL after five seasons as an OC? Because Canales called plays and Leftwich doesn’t.
The reason that Johnson withdrew his name for consideration last year and hasn’t done so this year is most likely the same as why Campbell says that the Lions will struggle to repeat their success next season: He’s being practical. If Ben Johnson chooses the wrong team (and we’ve already seen that the Panthers would have been the wrong team) he might not ever get a second opportunity to be a head coach.
If Johnson didn’t want to be a head coach of the Seahawks or Moons, he could have withdrawn his name from consideration already. Since he’s got interviews with these teams in the next two days, it appears that Johnson wants one or either of these jobs. Based on recent history of offensive play callers like him and other context clues, I expect Johnson to be a head coach by Wednesday.
Lesson for Seahawks: Hire a play caller as head coach
It’s not a hard and fast rule that has to be followed every time—look at the success that Campbell has had in the last two years—but it sure seems like having a play caller under an ironclad contract increases the odds of being successful year after year.
Examples: Super Bowl coaches Kyle Shanahan and Andy Reid. They’ve been to a combined 10 conference championship games in the last six years.
When Dan Quinn lost Shanahan as his offensive coordinator after 2016, it was the beginning of the end for his time with the Falcons. When Pete Carroll lost Quinn to the Falcons, it coincided with Seattle’s fall from the top as a defense. That probably has more to do with players than coaches, but it is no less true that the defense was never great again after Quinn left and Carroll doesn’t call plays.
Citing this list of play callers in the NFL by Mike Clay…
Head coaches who call offensive plays: Shanahan, Reid, Sean McVay, Sean Payton, Zac Taylor, Matt LaFleur, Shane Steichen, Mike McDaniel, Kevin O’Connell, and Mike McCarthy.
Calls defensive plays: Sean McDermott.
The Eagles lost both coordinators after reaching the Super Bowl in 2022 and they collapsed by the end of 2023. But McVay can lose a coordinator every year—which he practically does—and the Rams continue to be the same team with relatively few exceptions.
If the Seahawks want to make Mike Macdonald the second head coach in the NFL to call plays on defense (I’m not sure if new coaches like Jerod Mayo plan to be defensive coordinators), they’ll certainly have my support.
But if it were me, I would definitely prioritize locking in a head coach who has the unique ability to lead a team AND call plays/strategize for how to beat Shanahan, McVay, and even the Arizona Cardinals two times per year each. We don’t know yet if either Johnson or Macdonald are going to be successful head coaches, but we at least have evidence that they are successful at calling plays.
They’re already winning half of the battle, which is more than I can say for candidates who simply possess great leadership qualities like Campbell. Even Campbell knows how badly he needs to hire good play callers since he hasn’t proven he’s one of them.
2: Jared Goff is not it
When one quarterback makes the Super Bowl in four out of six years as a starter, it’s not hard to see why that player is associated with being able to consistently win playoff games. People claim to hate “QB Wins” but will have no problem crediting Tom Brady—and only Brady—for seven Super Bowl championships.
It’s convenient to criticize “QB Wins”…up until the point that it makes for a good tweet that leads to more engagement right?:
Whether it is Brady or Mahomes or Peyton Manning or Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees or even Russell Wilson to a degree, certain quarterbacks have given us reason to think that the special ones will at least give you a chance to reach the Super Bowl every year.
Going into the season, I would have put my money on Mahomes or Josh Allen or Joe Burrow to put their teams in position to reach the Super Bowl. Burrow got injured, but next year I’ll continue to bet on quarterbacks like these ones. We’re mostly always betting on quarterbacks, right? Because if tomorrow Patrick Mahomes was on the Steelers and Josh Allen was on the Bucs, I’d put my money on a Super Bowl matchup of the Steelers and Bucs.
Goff was terrible with Jeff Fisher/Rob Boras in 2016, he was terrible with Anthony Lynn/Dan Campbell in 2021, and he’s been pretty good-to-very good with McVay and Johnson in every other campaign.
But I don’t know how anyone could have watched Sunday’s NFC Championship and thought that Goff was in no way responsible for the loss. Yes, his receivers let him down on a couple of notable plays that may have impacted the final result, but we’re also ignoring some major over-throws/bad reads/missed opportunities that I wouldn’t expect from the types of quarterbacks I just mentioned; Mahomes, Allen, Burrow.
Josh Allen does have some crazy bad throws. Just imagine if he switched places with Goff at the beginning of the season: Would the Bills be the #2 seed in the AFC with Goff and would the Lions have lost to the 49ers on Sunday if they had Josh Allen? And this is the worst part of all: People expect the Lions to give Goff a huge contract extension this offseason!
Lesson for Seahawks: Know when a QB is not it
Why did Jalen Hurts make the Super Bowl a year ago and Brock Purdy made the Super Bowl a day ago? These are not elite quarterbacks but they were elite for their time: Purdy ranked first in the NFL in passer rating (113) by a wide margin and he was good enough to beat a team that started Goff.
Next up, beat a team that is starting Mahomes.
Hurts was the best quarterback in the NFC a year ago, ranking second in passer rating in the conference behind only Jimmy Garoppolo, who of course was replaced by Purdy; and Purdy’s 107.3 passer rating in five starts would have ranked first in the NFL last season if he qualified.
Obviously the 49ers have setup their quarterbacks for success with play calling (addressed earlier) and having several of the best players in the league around him. However, if you take some of Purdy’s best players away—and this is evidenced by how he plays without Deebo Samuel—his value goes down considerably.
Meanwhile, Mahomes has won Super Bowls with and without Tyreek Hill.
There’s always a chance that someone like Geno Smith can have a successful year and wind up in a championship game like Goff did, but the odds are greater that those quarterbacks will miss the playoffs or lose in the first round than they are that they’ll get to the Super Bowl.
If you want your team to win consistently, the safest bet has always been an elite quarterback. Those kinds of players are hard to find under normal circumstance, but impossible to find if you’re not even trying. Schneider reportedly wanted Patrick Mahomes in 2017 and Josh Allen in 2018.
Will he get what he wants in 2024?
3: Expect your competition to improve
It is not a coincidence that the same year that Aaron Rodgers was traded to the Jets, the Lions won the division for the first time in three decades.
Yes, Jordan Love was awesome in the second half of the season, but Green Bay’s 3-6 start is all it took for Detroit to gain a lead in the division that was impossible to relinquish. Now with Love getting his first taste of success and the Packers better suited to know how to help him, the Lions won’t be getting any free passes to the division title in 2024:
The Packers won six of their last eight and then blew out the Cowboys in the wild card.
The Vikings could come back stronger after losing Kirk Cousins to an Achilles tear mid-season that took them out of contention.
The Bears have two top-10 picks, including first overall, and they got better week after week, including a December win over the Lions.
The NFC North competition last season was won by a team with Goff partly because Love was a first-time starter, Cousins was injured, and Justin Fields isn’t a good passer.
The NFC North competition next year is an upgraded Love, a healthy Cousins (if he re-signs), and Chicago potentially drafted Caleb Williams first overall and trading Fields.
Given historical records and the success of Love down the stretch, I would think that more people expect the Packers to win the division next year than the Lions, and both teams have to be worried that the Bears will end up with a franchise quarterback in the draft; I’ve said for a while that if any team in the NFC lands a player like Allen or Mahomes, it’s all but over for the rest of the conference.
We don’t know yet if Caleb or Drake Maye (who could go to Washington) will be that guy, but the Bears may get to find out and that should scare the Lions.
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Lesson for Seahawks: You must always be sizing up your competition
The goal for the Seahawks is not to be good or even to be great: The goal is to be BETTER than your competition threats. Right now, the Ravens are the second-best team in the AFC…and that got them as many Super Bowl appearances this season as the Seahawks.
Seattle can’t worry about anything else going on in the league right now except what they can do to improve and how much better they need to get in order to outwit, outlast, and outplay these three teams: 49ers, Rams, Cardinals.
That’s a tall task for the Seahawks because the Niners just won the NFC and the Rams just won the Super Bowl two years ago. Even Arizona was better than Seattle in the second half of the 2023 season and they hold a much higher pick in the draft.
If I’m running the Seahawks, I’m specifically strategizing plans that will increase my odds of being better than the Niners, Rams, and Cardinals for the next five years: Head coach, quarterback, assistant coaches, personnel, drafting, pro scouting…These upcoming decisions must DIRECTLY relate to a plan that will WIN THE NFC West.
It’s not just: “How do we get generally better?” which is how most of us usually make offseason plans. We think of “holes” on the roster and “needs” so that the team ends up flawless from top to bottom.
Instead, the plan should fixate on going 6-0 in the NFC West, winning the division, guaranteeing a home playoff game, and positioning yourself to be the number one seed in the conference: As I wrote, the Seahawks must have aspirations to be the #1 seed, not just to be better.
The Lions won the NFC North at a time when the division was on “easy mode” compared to the previous three decades. Next year, the level of difficulty is certain to be raised again.
The Seahawks finished third in the NFC West at a time when the Niners are the best team in the conference and the Rams have Matthew Stafford and Puka Nacua. Between the Rams, Cardinals, and Seahawks, all of those teams have to be in a race to find a great quarterback—I assume SF isn’t budging Purdy—supporting cast, and coaching staff that is prepared to dethrone the 49ers next season, if not own the division for a long time.
As Dan Campbell said, you never know when it’s your time. Your best opportunity to win the Super Bowl could be ahead of you, but it’s even better to know when those rare chances to win a championship are behind you.
Firing Pete Carroll could have been the Seahawks admitting to themselves that their best opportunities were in the past. The head coach and quarterback decisions that Schneider makes in the next month should telegraph for fans if Super Bowl hopes are finally back where they belong: In the future.