Dan Campbell was a backup tight end for Bill Parcells when he coached the Dallas Cowboys. Unlike his teammate Jason Witten, Campbell was not primarily a pass catcher but was a designated blocker.
It did not bother Parcells that Campbell was also a free spirit, wore his hair long, with a trimmed beard, and liked to listen to heavy metal music. Campbell fit the Parcells mode. He hit hard and he liked teammates who played the same way.
When the Miami Dolphins lost three of their first four games this season and fired head coach Joe Philbin, Campbell was named interim coach. It was a surprising move because Campbell, 39, was just a position coach – tight ends, of course. The usual progression is for the offensive or defensive coordinator to get a shot when there’s an opening for a head coach.
But Campbell turns out to be an instant sensation. The Dolphins won their first two games under Campbell by a combined score of 82-36. When have we ever seen a coaching change produce such immediate results?
But skeptics point out that those two victories came against Tennessee and Houston, the riff-raff of the NFL’s flimsiest division, the AFC South.
The competition stiffens dramatically Thursday night when the Dolphins face the Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots, in Foxborough, Mass. The Patriots are 6-0 and inspiring dreams of 16-0, which they achieved in 2007 when Bill Belichick was their head coach and Tom Brady was their quarterback, which remains the case today.
The Patriots are solidly favored, but the Dolphins during the off-season were smartly redesigned to match up against the Patriots, perennial leaders of their division, the AFC East.
As with most pocket quarterbacks, the best chance for beating the future Hall of Famer Brady is to apply pressure up the middle, force him to move laterally and throw when off balance. So the Dolphins acquired the perfect defensive tackle for that purpose: Ndamukong Suh, signed away from the Detroit Lions for a contract worth upwards of $100 million over six years.
That acquisition looked like a total waste as Suh accomplished next to nothing for Philbin in a defensive scheme the player detested. Suh and the team’s edge rusher, Cameron Wake, had no sacks in the first four games. But with Campbell in charge and Philbin’s defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle following him out the door, Suh and Wake combined for eight sacks in two games.
“We’ve got great energy,” Suh said. “The whole team is feeding off each other.”
Coyle’s system required the linemen to “read and react,” while Campbell wants them charging forward to stop the play in the opponent’s backfield.
In his first day as head coach, Campbell told the players to be aggressive, to play within the rules, but to the limit of the rulebook.
Throwing all caution aside, Campbell runs the feared Oklahoma drills in practice, along with full one-on-one drills, sometimes accompanied by music from his favorite band, Metallica. He frequently matches the first-team offense against the first-team defense.
Backup quarterback Matt Moore broke his nose during one of Campbell’s first practices. Also acquired a black eye. “I got an elbow to the face,” he told ESPN.
On offense, Campbell emphasizes the running game to take pressure off quarterback Ryan Tannehill, an interception machine under Philbin. With Campbell, Tannehill appears calm and confident. He set an NFL record by completing 25 consecutive passes over the past two games.
Meanwhile, running back Lamar Miller is thriving. Against Houston on Sunday he scored on a 54-yard pass and on an 85-yard run.
Campbell has shifted to a two tight-end offense in his base formation. He makes good use of Dion Sims as a blocker, much as Parcells once used Campbell. “I’m trying to get four tight ends in the game,” he said. He was smiling, but he may not be kidding.
Click here for Alan Truex’s NFL predictions for Thursday’s game and others.