For interim head coaches like Dolphins’ Dan Campbell, present tense as future hangs in balance

They were chanting Dan Campbell’s name Sunday when he jogged off the field at halftime, thousands of voices expressing their approval for Miami’s newest rock star.

Twenty days earlier, the Dolphins had fired fourth-year Coach Joe Philbin after three consecutive losses and a 1-3 start. The team had barely been competitive, with star players underachieving and a locker room showing cracks.

Now, as the team’s interim head coach, it is Campbell’s turn. The Dolphins’ immediate and possibly long-term fortunes now fall on the 39-year-old shoulders of a coach who, until Oct. 5, was coaching the team’s tights ends. Given the opportunity of a lifetime, Campbell has orchestrated an apparent turnaround with a blowout of Tennessee and last Sunday’s beatdown of Houston, jumping to a 41-0 halftime lead.

So yes, he’s popular in South Florida. Humble, too.

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“It’s not me. It’s this team,” Campbell would say later of the difference in the Dolphins’ fortunes, though his 2-0 start argues otherwise. “These guys want it.” Campbell grew up and played football in Glen Rose, later becoming a tight end for the Dallas Cowboys. 

In replacing Philbin, the Dolphins made their third in-season coaching change in the last 11 years, the most of any NFL team during that period. Miami has led a trend that underscores the increasing pressure on NFL coaches to win immediately — and also one that, more and more, grants little-known assistants such as Campbell a trial run at leading a team.

Since 1980, 51 NFL assistants have been elevated to interim head coach, usually to replace a failed predecessor and make a statement to a fan base: Waiting until season’s end to make a change is waiting too long; someone else deserves a shot. More and more, franchises are bailing on coaches early. After all, a third of those 51 interims have been installed in the past eight years, highlighting the ever-dissolving patience of team owners and front-office executives.

“The No. 1 thing you’re looking for is: Are the players responding to the current head coach?” said one former NFL executive who oversaw an in-season coaching change. “If they’re not, you need to make a change.”

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Sometimes interim coaches have been pushed into the spotlight for reasons beyond losing. Aaron Kromer and Joe Vitt stood in for Sean Payton while the Saints coach was suspended during the 2012 season for his role in the “Bountygate” saga, and Wade Phillips — an interim head coach three times during an NFL coaching career that spans four decades — took over for Gary Kubiak when the Texans coach missed a game for health reasons in 2013 (and replaced him later that season when Kubiak was fired).

Many have treated the auditions like temp jobs, such as two-time interim head coaches Vitt and Terry Robiskie, holding the locker room together as best they can before retreating to a coaching staff’s shadows. Others have seized an opportunity. Three years ago, Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was selected to step in as interim head coach while Coach Chuck Pagano underwent leukemia treatment. Almost overnight, Arians went from an assistant focused on game-planning and making offensive adjustments to a coach now in charge of scheduling practices and approving travel arrangements, making fourth-down decisions and at least attempting to be civil with game officials.

“I’m hot-headed as hell as it is,” Arians said in a recent telephone interview.

Arians, a known trash talker during practices, muted his insults of the Colts’ defense, forcing himself to praise interceptions and fumble recoveries. “They’re like: What are you doing over here?” the now-63-year-old Arizona Cardinals coach said. “I’m like: Hey man, I’m with you now!”

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Arians, in a hopeful nod at Pagano’s eventual return to the sideline, refused to be called “head coach.” But he nonetheless put his own stamp on the job. He decided the morning of his first game to run a no-huddle offense against Green Bay — a contest, Arians recalled, that was “the only time I ever felt fear of losing,” in part because Colts owner Jim Irsay had promised a game ball to Pagano. Arians’s own sense of validation two decades after Temple University fired him from his only previous head coaching job factored in some as well.

Arians bypassed a pregame speech and, even after the Colts fell behind to the Packers at halftime, 21-3, kept his message simple: “Look guys, we ain’t got to holler and scream,” he recalled. “Just do your damn job and make one play, our way, and we can turn this thing.”

Sure enough, the 1-2 Colts came back to beat Green Bay and went on to an 11-5 record in 2012. Arians was named NFL Coach of the Year. More than that, after 23 years as a college and NFL assistant, Arians — who indeed stepped aside when a healthy Pagano returned to the Colts — was invited to interview for seven NFL head coaching jobs following that season.

“Okay, I can do this,” Arians, whose Cardinals are 5-2 in 2015 and lead the NFC West, recalled thinking a few games into his interim stint. “And I could do it my way. I could delegate to other coaches to do their job. I can call plays, which I love to do, if someone would give me a chance.”

Although teams tend to respond with renewed energy and focus when the prevailing message changes — of the nine interims since 2010 who followed a fired head coach, five went on to win their first game (and three of those coaches eventually had the interim tag removed) — team owners and front-office executives are more interested in sustained success and, in many cases, long-term potential.

One former NFL executive, who requested anonymity in order to more honestly discuss a topic seen as sensitive around the league, said that when a head coach formed his staff, the executive almost immediately began sizing up assistant coaches for various scenarios. Who were the foot soldiers, and who had leadership potential? Which assistants were the idea guys and alpha personalities who, when they speak, others listen? Who, during a time of crisis, could be inspiring and perhaps salvage a disappointing season?

Most staffs, the executive said, contain a few ambitious and dynamic coaches. Experienced general managers mentally file away those names and attributes and revisit that list during more turbulent times. By the time a coaching change is imminent, the former executive said, most everyone in the practice facility senses it; players begin shutting out the coach’s message and losses begin to stack up.

“You’re looking at these players,” the former executive said, “and you’re seeing them not listen or it’s white noise to them. You can see it. You can see the players tuning out.”

When the time comes, usually on instructions from ownership, the GM already has his interim in mind. The former executive speculated that the charismatic Campbell was earmarked as a potential interim long before Philbin was let go.

Now that Campbell has his chance, he’ll be graded on most everything he does. Winning games is most important, sure, but the former executive said that when he elevated an interim coach, he took note of the coach’s every move. How did players continue responding to the new message, especially following a loss? How does he manage media responsibilities — seen by some owners as a key indicator of how a fan base will respond to a coach — along with the various responsibilities of the job? How does his approach change once the novelty wears off and the grind sets in?

This past Sunday, after his second victory as an NFL head coach, Campbell entered the locker room and was surrounded by players and assistants. “My God, did you guys come out early,” the NFL’s first interim of 2015 said as players and assistant coaches surrounded him and applauded.

Campbell has 10 more games to prove whether he is more Arians than Robiskie, but at least he has the chance to show whether the images from his first two weeks — the chants, victories and applause — are, like Campbell himself, temporary or here to stay.