Why Lions have so many former NFL players on coaching staff

Dan Campbell, center, has put his faith in the likes of Aaron Glenn, left, and Mark Brunell, right, in Detroit. ESPN Illustration

DETROIT -- Early in training camp last season, Detroit Lions tight end Brock Wright saw his unit was struggling to master its responsibilities in pass-protection schemes.

That's when newly hired tight ends coach Steve Heiden -- an 11-year veteran at the position who played for the Cleveland Browns and San Diego Chargers -- stepped in.

"We were kind of struggling early on in training camp and him, having played the position for so long, he had so many different technique ideas and drills and things to help us with," Wright said of Heiden. "It really helped us hammer that down early on in the season and improve on it for the rest of the year."

Heiden played 148 games over his career, logging 201 receptions for 1,689 yards and 14 touchdowns. Prior to joining Detroit's staff, he spent 10 years coaching with the Arizona Cardinals, including serving as tight ends coach during his final four seasons. Wright, entering his fourth NFL season, calls Heiden "the best coach I've ever had by far."

"When it comes to his knowledge of the game, the way he's able to communicate it with us is incredible," Wright said. "I've learned so much from him already and I'm really looking forward to working with him again this year and just keep getting better."

Heiden is one of nine accomplished former NFL players who have found their way to Lions coach Dan Campbell's staff. Campbell, a tight end in the league for more than a decade, has surrounded himself with assistant coaches such as Heiden, Mark Brunell (quarterbacks), Antwaan Randle El (wide receivers), Aaron Glenn (defensive coordinator), Scottie Montgomery (running backs), Hank Fraley (offensive line), Kelvin Sheppard (linebackers), Deshea Townsend (passing game coordinator/defensive backs) and Shaun Dion Hamilton (assistant linebackers coach) who helped transform the franchise from perennial loser to Super Bowl contender over three seasons.

The tactic has been a hit. In addition to the Lions' success -- Detroit came within a win of making its first Super Bowl appearance last season -- players rave about the coaching staff's previous playing experience, saying it helps the coaches relate to them in pivotal moments on and off the field. And the coaches' presence has also been helpful to their colleagues without NFL playing backgrounds, such as offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, who can draw from their experience.

"It's instant credibility with the players," Johnson said. "[The players] might not know the coach very well, but the fact that he played at a high level in this league, I do think that speaks volumes for the respect factor early on."

Johnson, who has interviewed for a number of head-coaching vacancies -- including the Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Chargers -- the past two offseasons, is one of the 17 members of the 26-man coaching staff with no NFL playing experience. A former walk-on quarterback at the University of North Carolina, he says he has benefitted from the presence of so many former NFL players in Detroit. Their knowledge has helped in game-planning, and Johnson sees a stark difference in their approach.

"I learned from a veteran coach when I was in Miami that you can't coach what you don't know and so for guys like me and probably [Lions special teams] Coach [Dave] Fipp who didn't play in this league, it's been a race for growing that library, the volume, what can we learn, what can we be experts on that we can share that knowledge and then our way of teaching that to the players is just -- it looks different because you might have Coach Heiden, or Antwaan Randle El out there demonstrating exactly what they want."

A Super Bowl champion who caught 370 passes over a nine-year career, Randle El serves as a mentor to his Lions wide receiver group. His understanding of them as athletes, their lives at home and on the field has helped him connect in a way that is appreciated.

"With them understanding how our bodies feel, what we go through, the aches and pains in a year, what practice looks like. So they really understand what it's like to be a player in this league, and not just being on the field, but even off the field, whether it's family trying to come to games and things like that they understand," Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said.

"They keep it in their mind, and they know what it's like. And they feel for us, but they always remind us that 'You guys have to keep the main thing, the main thing.'"

Working with Brunell as his quarterbacks coach, Jared Goff helped lead Detroit to the NFC Championship Game last season, posting the 11th-best total QBR (60.3) while throwing for 4,575 yards, 30 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.

Brunell, a three-time Pro Bowler who led the NFL in passing yards (4,367) in 1996, isn't afraid to be hard on Goff, who says it has helped bring out the best in him. The former No. 1 overall pick in 2016, Goff has passed for 12,258 yards and 78 touchdowns with 27 interceptions in their three seasons together in Detroit.

"Brunell's a perfect example. He's been through a lot of it," Goff said. "He's had his highs and he's had his lows and I think, having a guy like that for me to rely on, he's seen every bit of playing this position. He played it for a long time. It's been fun. It's been really fun to work with him. He's been great to me."

In December, former Lions safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson returned to practice in three months -- quicker than the expected six -- after tearing a pectoral muscle in Week 2. Without football, Gardner-Johnson described the rehab process as being "lonely" and "dark," but he was able to return earlier than expected, he said, with the help of Campbell.

"That former player has been hurt before, so he taught me that mentally you can't get down because you can't control that," said Gardner-Johnson, who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles this offseason. "Dan would text me and say, 'Don't forget about football.' Because I would find myself [away] from football too much."

Surrounded by former players, Campbell's Lions have won 21 games over the past two seasons, which is the most in franchise history over that span. Although many view him as the face of the team's turnaround, one hall of famer said his star-studded coaching staff deserves a lot of the credit as well.

"A big part of that is Dan himself, being a player turned coach and him surrounding himself with a bunch of player-coaches on his staff," said Lions great Calvin Johnson, a former teammate of Campbell in Detroit. "Players have no choice really but to dial in when you have somebody that's been there, done that and did the things that you're trying to do and they're teaching you how to do those things.

"You kind of dial in a little more when you have a player-coach, and you see that happening. You saw it when it happened last year and it kind of clicked for them halfway through the season last year and it's just been trending up since then."

Detroit is not alone in its hiring practices, however. Though they have yet to experience similar on-field success as Detroit, teams such as the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers also had coaching staffs littered with former players last season, and Campbell is quick to stress not every former NFLer can be a great coach.

"It's not just that you're ex-players, they have to be the right players that are ex-players," Campbell said. "Just like, just because a coach has not played in the NFL, doesn't mean he can't coach -- he's not a damn good coach. He's got to be the right coach.

"So, it's about the right person who is the right coach. But you've still got to earn your respect. You have to earn the respect of the players."

Campbell said he values adding coaches who can be motivators, teachers and communicators above all else.

"We have a really, really good chemistry in the staff, which is one of the greatest things I learned under [Broncos coach] Sean Payton, man, it's -- compatibility is more important than coachability, which doesn't mean coachability is not important, it just means compatibility is the most important thing with that group," Campbell said.