The road to becoming a locker room leader, meeting room mentor and all-around powerful presence started with four words.
“Let’s go with Jacksonville.”
Calais Campbell has been going ever since.
Revered by his teammates and respected by his coaches, Campbell arrived at the Jaguars’ complex after signing in early March with his figurative hair on fire, intent to show he’s an elite defensive lineman and that his excellent leadership skills could transfer from Arizona.
Check and check.
The Jaguars outbid Denver and Washington to sign Campbell and he debuted last week in spectacular fashion, posting four sacks in a 29-7 win over the Houston Texans. It was his career high and the single-game Jaguars record.
Nobody is counting on Campbell to have four sacks or for the defense to get 10 sacks Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. But if he is again dominant, the Jaguars could be 2-0 for the first time in 11 years.
“To see him first-hand every day, he’s a special guy,” defensive end Dante Fowler says. “He’s hungry and he inspires.”
Says defensive line coach Marion Hobby: “He’s a natural football player with exceptional ability.”
In March, Campbell entered unrestricted free agency for the first time and had a number in mind – an average salary of $15 million, which would put him among five highest-paid defensive linemen.
When the negotiating period opened, Arizona offered $9 million per year, trailing the Jaguars and Washington at $11 million. A ton of money? Yes. But as a documentary of the process produced by Uninterrupted showed, there was a tinge of disappointment on Campbell’s face.
“It’s all market value,” Campbell recalled this week. “You go with what the market is. I felt I was one of the best in the league – and I want to be the best in the league. When the best are getting paid $17-$19 million and you’re at $11 million, it’s not saying you’re one of the best in the league.”
In the $17-$19 million range are Denver’s Von Miller ($19.083 million), Miami’s Ndamukong Suh ($19 million) and the New York Giants’ Olivier Vernon and Philadelphia’s Fletcher Cox (both $17 million).
Campbell’s price rose, though, over the course of two days. The Redskins and Jaguars both went up to $12 million. The Jaguars then to $14.75 million. Denver, Campbell’s hometown team, emerged late and became a major contender with an offer of $26 million over two years ($12 million and $14 million) and a third-year option of $12 million.
Campbell had agent Tom Condon call the Cardinals for a final double-check and general manager Steve Keim thanked Campbell for his service and they were out.
The Jaguars upped their offer one final time – four years, $60 million (the coveted $15 million average), including $30 million guaranteed.
His phone on speaker, Campbell clapped his hands and told Condon, “Let’s go with Jacksonville.”
The money certainly talked for the Jaguars, but luring Campbell was a coup considering they have not made the playoffs since 2008 and were 3-13 last year.
“It feels like a long time ago,” Campbell said of the signing process. “Going through the whole off-season program, it was a bunch of unknowns back then. Now that I see it and know it – it was a great decision.”
And a great decision by the Jaguars to pursue Campbell.
In addition to transitioning to a new organization, Campbell’s first meeting with Hobby revealed his new role. Instead of playing full-time defensive tackle, he would move outside to strong-side end because the Jaguars had Malik Jackson.
“I really wanted the opportunity to play d-end,” Campbell says. “But going to a 3-4 system [in Arizona], this kind of position didn’t exist and I had to adjust. I was eager and hopeful to play d-end and when they told me, I smiled and was excited for the challenge.”
Campbell left his office and Hobby had an instant thought to himself: “This is not just an average guy. He is a real deal person.”
Drafted in the second round (No. 50 overall) in 2008, Campbell was like most young players – he kept his mouth shut. But he was listening. How to be a pro. How to handle adversity. How to win. And how to develop into a leader.
“It wasn’t right away, that’s for sure,” Campbell says. “At first, you want to show you belong and earn your teammates’ respect. And we had a lot of leaders. It was probably Year 4 when I started to try and speak up. When I saw something, I spoke up on it. You have to know your role and where you fit in with the team.”
Campbell cites Darnell Dockett, Larry Fitzgerald and Adrian Wilson as leadership models. As the Cardinals transitioned to a new era, Campbell became a voice.
Campbell didn’t need to wait once he signed with the Jaguars. On a team whose Week 1 roster was the fourth-youngest in the NFL, Campbell’s presence was quickly felt. He saw young players willing to listen. He saw coaches who were open to ideas but unafraid to critique him. And after the draft, tailback Leonard Fournette’s locker was placed next to Campbell.
The talk, though, meant little if Campbell didn’t show well on the field and in the weight room. Talk doesn’t go far if a player doesn’t work.
“If you’ve done a good job and if you’ve played well and you walk into a locker room, you have 10 seconds of respect,” coach Doug Marrone says. “But then you have to earn it. And I think that’s where Calais and a lot of our players have done a good job coming in and making sure they’re communicating that they’re happy to be a part of something.”
In the defensive line room, Campbell sits in the third row/right side. It took one position meeting for him to make an impression.
“When he took his chair, you could tell he was a little bit different, the way he responded to coaching, the way he talked to his teammates,” Hobby says. “And he can take criticism – he’ll say, ‘Coach, I’ll work on it and get it fixed,’ and then he’ll try and help the young guys. He pushes guys.”
Following one off-season workout, Campbell pulled all of the Jaguars rookies aside for a chat … it was a one-sided conversation.
“It was a rough day,” recalls defensive end Hunter Dimick, now on the Jaguars’ practice squad. “And Calais said, ‘You have to be ready for this. This is what you’re getting into. You have to get past the hard parts first.’ Everybody who has got to this league has worked hard, but having a guy like him tell you what it took for him was invaluable.”
Marrone calls Campbell’s ability to rally his teammates, “an outstanding trait. That’s very difficult for some people to do. But he’s just a really good person and obviously a really good football player.”
The really good football player had a really good game last week.
Campbell played 63 snaps and his pass rush work was off the charts. In order, it was half-sack, sack, sack, hit, sack, pressure and half-sack. He was named AFC Defensive Player of the Week.
What stood out about Campbell is his stick-to-it approach. His first solo sack came in 5.16 seconds.
“What you’re going to see is the second effort,” Hobby says. “The first rush didn’t work and he had to come back. The second effort and playing with a great motor is what stood out to me.”
Campbell is strong enough to overpower guards and centers inside and has the athleticism to get around the edge against offensive tackles. He is a player who gives the Jaguars options.
“We knew we had a good player,” defensive coordinator Todd Wash says. “We don’t anticipate four sacks every game, but we expect him to be a dominant run defender and a guy who can be disruptive against the pass.
“For how big he is [6-foot-8/300 pounds], he’s a very good athlete. I’m sure [Tennessee] will have to know where he’s at all the time and we have to make sure we do a good job moving him around.”
Campbell is nearing a ninth consecutive year with at least five sacks and a few more productive games will have him in double-digits for the first time (his current career high is nine in 2013). Last week was his 10th multi-sack game.
After each sack, Campbell was mobbed by his teammates, young guys who want to win and are following No. 93’s lead.
“When I was on the field with him, after the first couple says, I was star struck,” Fowler says. “I was like, ‘Wow, that’s Calais Campbell.’ That’s pretty cool.”
Campbell and the Jaguars are hoping for more pretty cool things against the Titans on Sunday.