JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As his players were heading toward the team bus following their season-opening victory against the Houston Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone congratulated defensive end Calais Campbell on his franchise-record four sacks.
“I said, ‘That is one hell of a day you had today,'” Marrone said. “He said, ‘I couldn’t have done it without the people in the back end with their coverage.’ I think that says more about it than anything else.”
The “it” Marrone was referring to is the leadership Campbell has displayed since he signed a four-year, $60 million free-agent contract in March. The Jaguars needed pass-rush help — Campbell had 56.5 in nine seasons with Arizona — but they also wanted a vocal, veteran presence in a locker room full of young talent. Campbell fit both.
What he’s done through eight games has blown away the team’s expectations — both on the field and off. Campbell has a career-high 11 sacks — one shy of tying Tony Brackens’ single-season franchise record set in 1999 — and is the main reason the Jaguars lead the NFL with 35. But Campbell’s work off the field has been an even more crucial part of the Jaguars’ 5-3 record and place atop the AFC South.
Whether it’s organizing an outing with teammates, helping the other defensive linemen with pass-rush moves, fielding questions about non-football topics from young players, or spending a few moments offering advice or counsel, Campbell’s leadership has been off the charts.
“You couldn’t ask for anything better,” Marrone said. “I really couldn’t.
“… I ran into someone from [a local Jacksonville high school] and he was like, ‘I played at the University of Miami with Calais and I’m just going to tell you, [he’s] the best guy, the best,’ and he hit every nail on the head. I couldn’t be more pleased. I really couldn’t. I think he’s outstanding.”
Campbell’s leadership is not always as visible as talking to the team on the field before the game, either. Defensive end Dante Fowler Jr. is not only playing the best football of his career; he’s not been a problem on or off the field since camp began. He’s not jumping offside, hitting players out of bounds or losing his temper. He didn’t go crazy when he had his helmet ripped off twice in Sunday’s game against Cincinnati. Last season he would have, and he credits Campbell for helping him change.
Campbell also has helped defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who set the franchise’s single-season rookie sack record last season (8.0) and already has 6.5 this season, but in a different way. All it took was a few words.
“What pushes me every day is he tells me that I can be the best in this league in what I do,” Ngakoue said. “Definitely that word from him, it stuck to me and it keeps me grounded to keep working to get to that path and get to that point in my career.”
Campbell hasn’t only impacted defensive players, defensive coordinator Todd Wash said. To borrow a line from an old television commercial about stock brokerage firm EF Hutton: When Campbell talks, they listen.
“He reminds me a little bit of [former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker] Derrick Brooks as a person,” Wash said. “A leader within our team, how he takes those younger guys under his wing. He’s a tremendous leader and then when he gets on the grass he’s a physical presence.
“… I don’t know if he’s impacted just one guy. I think he’s impacted our whole team, not just defensively, but our whole team with his leadership, his work ethic, and what he brings every day.”
Campbell enjoys the role of locker room sage, big brother and confidant. He’s quick to deflect credit — ask him about his sacks and he’ll credit the secondary and the other players on the defensive line — and says he learns just as much from everyone else as they do from him.
“It is kind of flattering,” he said. “A lot of guys are coming to me for little things and I love passing knowledge down. I’m still learning myself, but I do have a lot of knowledge to pass down, so I encourage them to come to talk to me about anything. If I see something in their game I’m going to them, too.”
Even if Campbell didn’t want to be a vocal leader, Marrone said he’d still be one of the best role models a coach could want because of the way he prepares each week and takes care of his body. That’s just as valuable as anything Campbell has said in his time in Jacksonville.
“When you watch a guy that’s played 10 or 11 years in the league and he comes to work every day and works extremely hard at his craft and he’s a professional about it, I think that says a lot,” Marrone said. “I think it shows the younger players, ‘Hey, listen. You always have to continue to keep working.’ Here’s someone that’s been in this league a long time, had a lot of success, but comes to work every day to get better and put himself in position to help the team.”