Not every NFL head coach has to play in the league to be successful, but Lions coach Dan Campbell is proving that experience can certainly make a difference.

While Campbell has a hard-nosed mentality in an era that doesn’t always embrace that style of coaching, he’s been able to connect with his roster in Detroit because he’s spent years inside the locker room as a player and can empathize with players.

Campbell’s coaching journey was a unique one before he landed the Lions’ top job, as he was never an offensive or defensive coordinator but did gain head coaching experience on an interim basis in Miami. It’s fair to wonder whether that on-field experience made the Lions more comfortable with an outside-the-box hire in 2021.

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Here’s a closer look at Campbell’s playing career, from his college days to the NFL.

Where did Dan Campbell play football?

Campbell played college football at Texas A&M from 1995-98 before carving out an 11-year career in the NFL.

While Campbell was born and raised in Texas, his NFL journey initially began in New York with the Giants. He spent four seasons with Big Blue before making a homecoming and joining the Cowboys for three seasons.

Campbell then got a taste of Detroit life by playing for the Lions from 2006-08 before finishing his career with the Saints in 2009. He would go on to coach for two of the four teams he played for, but it was Tony Sparano, his position coach in Dallas, who gave Campbell his first coaching opportunity in Miami.

Here’s a closer look at Campbell’s playing career both in the NFL and at the collegiate level.

Dan Campbell NFL career

Before he became the face of the Lions’ turnaround, Campbell was a blocking tight end who made few headlines but played an important role in the NFL for a decade.

Campbell was drafted 79th overall out of Texas A&M by the Giants in 1999 and went to the Super Bowl with New York in his second season. He played sparingly as a rookie, receiving only one target, but played all 16 games in each of the following three seasons primarily as a blocker. Campbell hauled in three touchdowns during the Giants’ NFC championship season in 2000 and had five overall during his time in New York.

The Cowboys acted quickly to sign Campbell in 2003, making him their blocking tight end while Jason Witten emerged as more of a pass-catching threat. Campbell had 195 yards and a touchdown in his first season in Dallas but didn’t make much of an impact as a pass-catcher in the next two years.

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Campbell’s most impactful year from a receiving standpoint came in 2006, when he totaled 308 yards and four touchdowns with the Lions. He caught Detroit’s lone TD in a 27-10 loss to the Dolphins on Thanksgiving in 2006.

Injuries limited Campbell to a total of three games between 2007 and 2008, and his luck wasn’t any better after reuniting with former offensive coordinator Sean Payton in New Orleans in 2009. While Campbell went from the 0-16 Lions in 2008 to the Super Bowl champion Saints in 2009, he didn’t receive a championship ring because he didn’t spend much time with the team after being placed on IR in the preseason.

Campbell finished his NFL career with 934 yards and 11 touchdowns across 10 seasons.

Dan Campbell NFL stats

Season Team Games Receptions Yards TD1999 Giants 12 0 0 02000 Giants 16 8 46 32001 Giants 16 13 148 12002 Giants 16 22 175 12003 Cowboys 16 20 195 12004 Cowboys 3 2 16 02005 Cowboys 16 3 24 12006 Lions 16 21 308 42007 Lions 2 1 1 02008 Lions 1 1 21 0Total 114 76 934 12

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Dan Campbell Texas A&M career

Campbell was known for his blocking at Texas A&M as well. His impact as a pass-catcher was limited, with Campbell totaling 314 yards and three touchdowns on just 27 receptions from 1996-98.

While the tight end position was viewed differently in that era and it wasn’t quite as common for players at the position to post gaudy receiving numbers, Campbell’s role wasn’t all that different than the one he assumed in the NFL. He shared tight end duties with Derrick Spiller, who was more of a pass-catcher with 436 yards in 1997 and 269 yards in 1998.

Ultimately, it was Campbell’s blocking that got him to the NFL, and it was his experience that helped him latch on as a tight ends coach with the Dolphins before joining the Saints and, finally, the Lions. After a gritty career on the football field, that grit has paid off on the sidelines and in the locker room at Ford Field.

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Kay Adams