METAIRIE, La. — Dan Campbell was thrown into the fire when he got his first head-coaching gig three years ago.
He did a fine job — going 5-7 as the Miami Dolphins’ interim coach before they decided to hire Adam Gase in the offseason. But Campbell, who was the youngest coach in the NFL at the time, at 39, also knew he needed more seasoning.
So what better than three years of graduate school under Sean Payton as the New Orleans Saints’ assistant head coach and tight ends coach?
Not only is Payton one of the game’s best head coaches, but he was also a mentor of Campbell’s throughout much of his 10-year playing career as a tight end with the Giants, Cowboys, Lions and Saints.
“It’s been extremely helpful,” said Campbell, who figures to be a popular head-coaching candidate this cycle at age 42 now that the Saints have re-emerged as one the NFL’s hottest teams over the past two seasons.
Campbell already got an interview with the Indianapolis Colts last year.
“You don’t know exactly what you’re looking for [as a head coach] until you get thrust into that role like I did at Miami. Well, once that doesn’t work out, I have a chance to come and learn under Sean, and now you know what you’re looking for, and now you know the questions to ask,” Campbell said. “So to be able to watch and learn under Sean and see how he deals with situations, see how he deals with management of a game, how he deals with personnel, how he deals with scheme. Just dealing with people, scheduling — everything.
“You talk about a wealth of knowledge now. So it’s been extremely helpful.”
In coming to New Orleans, Campbell basically ripped a page out of Payton’s playbook.
Probably the best thing Payton did as a young, up-and-coming coach was to land a job on Bill Parcells’ staff with the Dallas Cowboys in the early 2000s.
For three years in Dallas, Payton not only ran the Cowboys’ offense, but he took notes on everything he could absorb about how to be a head coach. From scheduling to personnel decisions to quotes that still hang in the Saints’ locker room to this day.
Parcells is still one of Payton’s closest friends and most cherished mentors.
And, oh by the way, it won’t hurt Campbell that he comes from that same coaching tree. Campbell played on those Cowboys teams under Parcells and Payton from 2003-05. He later got his start as a coaching assistant under another Parcells protégé, Tony Sparano, with the Dolphins in 2010.
Campbell said that, yes, he absolutely considered the benefits of learning how to be a better head coach under Payton when he chose the Saints over several other suitors in 2016 — including the Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings.
“But I would tell you that was No. 2 on the list,” Campbell said. “No. 1 was I know Sean, and I have a history with Sean. So I just knew about him as a person and as a coach. So to be reunited with him meant the world to me.”
What stands out most with Campbell is his presence — a big, booming voice and a 6-foot-5 frame that doesn’t weigh 265 pounds anymore like when he played, but remains chiseled.
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And sure enough, when he got the Miami job, he started adding some elements of toughness to the team right away — like Oklahoma drills and even tug-of-war to the practice routine, along with having the starting units practice against each other instead of scout teams at times.
But when you ask players what stands out about Campbell, they talk first about what a great person he is and how he cares for his players. Drew Brees even mentioned his sense of humor.
“He’s got a personality now, too. He’ll put on funny clips [when coaches present the scouting report each week]. He knows when to kind of loosen up and have fun,” Brees said. “He’s a guy who played a long time. So he’s got a level of respect coming from guys for how he played — he’s a tough, physical guy. He just really cares about his players. You can see that in the way he talks to us, talks to his position group. He’s just got a lot of great leadership qualities in that way. And I think he’s just a good person.
“So you combine all those things, and then he’s a person that you want to follow. And a person you believe in and you know he’s gonna be honest with you.”
Left tackle Terron Armstead said Campbell definitely has that “it factor” that helps elevate coaches into top jobs.
“He got it, man. He got it. Everybody here would do whatever for that guy,” Armstead said. “Being so relatable, having done it for so long, just has a great connection with the younger players. I’ve never seen him badmouth anybody, [it’s] more talking up to you. Even when they mess up, he’s gonna talk up to them. And you just want to play for somebody like that.
“You want to run through a brick wall for him. I would.”
Even defensive end Cameron Jordan said he has connected with Campbell, talking to him about how he can combat tight ends who try to chip-block him — and finding out ways he can talk trash to the Saints’ tight ends during training camp.
“He’s somebody who played in the NFL, someone who’s clearly an alpha — it’s easy to see that,” Jordan said of Campbell, who was used mostly as a blocking specialist during his playing career, finishing with a total of 934 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Payton and players have also credited Campbell for being a great teacher — which is evident in the growth of first-year Saints tight end Dan Arnold, who joined the team in 2017 as an undrafted wide receiver, among others. Campbell also helped tutor guys such as Charles Clay and Dion Sims as young tight ends in Miami.
“He’s a fantastic leader. Obviously played a long time in this league. He’s everything you want,” Payton said. “Extremely dedicated, hardworking. He’s exactly how he was as a player. And I tried to hire him a number of times and finally had that opportunity. So, we’re fortunate to have him.”
More Saints coaches on other teams’ radar
Defensive coordinator Dennis Allen struggled during his three years as the Oakland Raiders’ coach from 2012-14. But the 46-year-old is still young, and he has only continued to enhance his reputation over the past two years in New Orleans.
The Saints have quietly been playing some of the best defense in the NFL over the past 11 weeks, ranking second in the NFL in points allowed per game over that span (18.0), first in run defense (75.6 yards per game), second in sacks (35), tied for third in takeaways (19) and eighth in total yards allowed per game (327.2).
“I hope not. I hope DA is here as long as I’m here,” said Saints defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, who is having a breakout year with eight sacks. “He’s done a phenomenal job of putting us in the right positions to not only be able to compete but to make a difference on this team. … I think he does a great job of learning his players and not trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. I think that’s big when you talk about a really good coach.”
Offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr. also doesn’t get nearly the attention he deserves since he has been sandwiched between Payton and Brees over the past 13 years. But the 47-year-old has gotten a handful of head-coaching looks over the years — and he should absolutely be lumped in with the group of offensive innovators, such as Sean McVay and Matt Nagy, who have been setting the league on fire lately.
Offensive line coach Dan Roushar, secondary coach Aaron Glenn, defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen and running backs coach Joel Thomas are rising names in the business, too. Linebackers coach Mike Nolan, quarterbacks coach Joe Lombardi, receivers coach Curtis Johnson and senior defensive assistant Peter Giunta have been head coaches or coordinators in the past in the NFL or college.
“I’ve said this before — I think that’s a positive thing [when assistant coaches are interviewed elsewhere],” Payton said. “I think that when no one’s asking them, that’s a little bit more of a concern.”