The Lions were 1–6, and the defense was a mess, and all the great moments from Hard Knocks a couple months earlier were threatening to become punchlines.

No one needed to tell coach Dan Campbell how critical a juncture his team was at.

“Hey man, we’re this close,” Campbell told his players, holding his two fingers about an inch apart. “It’s one play.”

Had it been another coach, the message may have gone in one ear and out the other. But Campbell wasn’t BS’ing his players—and they knew it, because they knew he wouldn’t do that, and they knew he’d been in their seats. He was a second-year tight end on the 2000 Giants, a team that was up-and-down early, then won eight straight to make it to the Super Bowl. He was on the 0–16 Lions one year and the Super Bowl champion Saints the next.

So they listened, and they’d responded. Those Lions finished with eight wins in their last 10 games to finish 9–8.

This is what the Texans getting in former 49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans.

Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports

No, Ryans isn’t exactly the same as Campbell, or Mike Vrabel, or Kevin O’Connell. But his hire, done by the franchise for which he played six years and became a first-team all-Pro, does fit into an emerging trend that’s now riding shotgun to the well-worn pattern of finding young offensive minds in NFL circles.

Finding an ex-player, and in particular a recent ex-player, to run your team has its merits, and the track record of these hires over the last few years is pretty solid. Campbell turned the Lions around in two years and has Detroit on the upswing going into his third. Vrabel was in the AFC title game in his second year in Tennessee, and has made the playoffs in three of his five years. And O’Connell won 12 games and the NFC North in his first year.

All three of those guys also rocketed through the ranks. Campbell spent a year as an intern and then a decade as an assistant before Detroit hired him. Vrabel coached seven seasons, just four in the NFL, before getting his shot to run his own shop. O’Connell, likewise, spent seven seasons as an assistant coach before getting the Minnesota gig.

There’s another commonality there, too.

“They’re the kind of guys that walk in the room and you immediately know who’s in charge,” said one NFC exec. “It’s a persona of leadership, and maybe that’s not completely unique to being an ex-player, but being one certainly doesn’t hurt.”

Of course, that’s not all there is to it—the Colts tried it with Jeff Saturday, and it looks like they took the idea a couple steps too far. But if a powerful leader of an ex-player can put a staff together, and has been around for at least a few years to see what works and what doesn’t, there’s no question that, in the way they relate to players and command a group, there’s a real advantage to having a guy who’s young, and who played relatively recently, as the one that’s leading your team.

There’s a reason why the Texans were smitten with Ryans, and the Broncos were too, and part of it is feeling what the players in Detroit felt that day—with a coach who’d been in their position before trying to get them to shake off the awful start to the season.

Those players? They may have been 1–6. But they were listening.

And a lot of people outside Detroit paid attention to what happened next.

Let’s get to your mail …

From BroncoFanIAm (@BroncoFanIAm): Are the Broncos dragging their feet or do they already have something in place and just waiting to announce it? Maybe after signing day.

Bronco Fan, that was actually a thought I had earlier Tuesday, when it looked like Jim Harbaugh might still be in play in Denver. Since then, Sean Payton’s been hired, and I’ve been able to get a few more details on how all of it came together. So here’s what I know …

• The Broncos’ first interview with Payton took place in Los Angeles on Jan. 17, two weeks before the hire. At that point, I don’t think Denver was convinced that Payton would wind up coaching in 2023, but they resolved to stay in touch with the ex-Saints coach just to see where things went. Broncos GM George Paton had a number of conversations, one-on-one with Payton as part of that.

• In the meantime, Denver moved forward with its search, and really wound up liking Ryans. That ship sailed last week, though, when it became increasingly clear that Ryans’s focus was shifting towards his old team in Houston.

• The Broncos also worked to keep Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh on the hook, even after Harbaugh re-committed to coaching the Wolverines in 2023, with CEO Greg Penner making the trip to Ann Arbor to meet with him in person. Harbaugh was of interest, and in play right until the end, but never got an offer from the team.

• Things heated up Tuesday and came together fast—Paton and Saints GM Mickey Loomis hammered out the trade details (the Broncos sent the first rounder they got from Miami for Bradley Chubb and a 2024 second rounder to New Orleans for Payton and a 2024 third rounder), and Denver’s new ownership and Payton’s agent Don Yee went to work on a big-money contract.

So were they dragging their feet? I don’t think so. Was this a model coaching search? No.

But give the Broncos credit for keeping multiple options alive throughout, and in particular after Dan Quinn removed his name from the search, and Ryans backed away. It paid off for Denver in a very big way.

From Christopher Andrews (@Andrews3324): The biggest question we all want to know is, where will you eat while in town?

I’m going to Dumbwaiter tonight (I’m in Mobile for the Senior Bowl).

From Andrew Caraway (@Caraway6): How realistic would a Patriots trade for Jerry Jeudy be? Also Jakobi Meyers? Where does he end up? Thanks Bert. Go Dawgs!

Andrew, I don’t think the Broncos are going to be offloading offensive pieces now, with Payton in place as the coach. But the thought is a good one—If you’re going to find a star receiver, then researching guys on the back end of their rookie contracts (a la the Eagles’ trade for A.J. Brown) is definitely one place to look.

As for Jakobi Meyers, I think Cedrick Wilson would be a decent comp, if you’re looking for a contract that matches up. Wilson wasn’t as productive in Dallas as Meyers has been in New England, but I think there are similarities in how the market would value them, and so the three-year, $22.5 million deal the ex-Cowboy landed in Miami last March is a pretty good one to work off of.

Smith was excellent in his third year in Seattle, throwing for 4282 yards and 30 touchdowns. 

Cary Edmondson/USA TODAY Sports

From Jon Binary (@MachetePanzone): How much is Geno signing for dollars/term?

From 𝓔𝓻𝓲𝓬 𝓙𝓸𝓼𝓮𝓹𝓱 𝓑𝓪𝓲𝓻𝓭 (@EricJBaird): Seahawks! I think the QB situation is way more interesting then people are giving credit. What's the feeling people are getting? Is it truly ride or die with Geno or is it posturing again like it was with RW3?

Jon, I think Geno Smith’s market is very hard to gauge right now, because we don’t know what will happen with Aaron Rodgers, Lamar Jackson and Tom Brady, and guys like Derek Carr, Daniel Jones and Baker Mayfield will be available two. If those first three stick with their teams? That’d help Geno. If not, well, a lot of this will come down to how many open seats there are for starting quarterbacks—and if there are more quarterbacks than seats, it’ll be hard for any of the available QBs to break the bank.

Also, for what it’s worth, the franchise number for quarterback is set at $32.416 million, and I’d think Smith’s camp will make the Seahawks make a decision on whether or not to tag him before going too deep into negotiations.

As for the state of the position in Seattle, Eric, I’ll use the comparison I have with Kirk Cousins and (before he fell out of favor in Vegas) Derek Carr—the template for Geno with the Seahawks, as I see it, could very well be Alex Smith in Kansas City. You pay Smith well. He’ll give you a great chance to compete and contend and build the roster up around him. And in the meantime, you’ll be on the lookout for any special opportunity that comes along.

For the Chiefs, having Smith bought them the flexibility to go through the first four draft cycles of Andy Reid’s time there without taking a quarterback in the first rounds. And then what they saw as a special opportunity—to get aggressive and go get Patrick Mahomes—and the position was still open and the rest is history.

From Strickly Speakin’ (@SpiderStrick): How likely is it that Eric Bieniemy ends up as the Commanders OC?

Strickly, I don’t think Bieniemy will do it. Yes, it’d provide the opportunity to call plays. But he’s in a good spot now, and the problem with going to Washington is, one, you don’t know who the quarterback is going to be and, two, the staff there could be in trouble next year if things don’t turn around, with new ownership in place.

Now, do I think maybe he could latch on somewhere else? Sure. And if that happens, the Chiefs would have Matt Nagy (I don’t think Nagy should be discounted as a potential eventual successor to Reid) ready to roll into the job he held in 2016 and ’17.

From The 4 Man Rush (@4ourmanrush): What's the scoop with Will Levis not participating?

I don’t know exactly, Rush. But generally, quarterbacks who are locked into the first round are judicious about what they will and won’t participate in pre-draft, be it the Senior Bowl, the combine or pro day. So I wouldn’t read too much into it, outside of the decision to skip the Senior Bowl probably coming on the advice of someone.

From Jon Burton (@JonBurton32): Barkley and DJ both back with NYG next season?

Maybe, Jon! I think Saquon Barkley’s situation is relatively straight-forward. This is probably his last shot at big money as a pro, based on the normal lifespan of a running back, so he owes it to himself to see what he’s worth on the market. And I think that the Giants will be responsible here, so whether or not he’s back will be a matter of what sort of deal is out there—Free agency has not been kind to running backs in recent years.

Jones’s situation is more complicated, for the same reason Geno Smith’s is. The likelihood of Jones returning to New York, in other words, rides on a market that’s going to be affected in a very big way by what happens with Brady and Rodgers and Jackson.

Either way, I know the Giants would love to have both back. We’ll see if they can make that happen.