Discover more from Go Long
Calais Campbell is defying logic (Can Atlanta, too?)
He could've signed with just about any contender and one of this generation's best defensive linemen chose... the Falcons? Campbell sits down with Go Long to explain how his life led to this moment.
FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. — Before his caramel macchiato even arrives, seconds into conversation, the 6-foot-8 gentleman towering over everyone at Whole Being Cafe is dissecting his poker game of all things.
This is a subject Calais Campbell could discuss for hours. He has played in big-money tournaments against the pros. He befriended legend Erik Seidel.
The Atlanta Falcons defensive end has become damn good at reading people.
Over time, Campbell has fine-tuned a “TAG” approach — “tight, but aggressive.” When he’s at the table, he asks himself one question: How do people perceive me? Which mirrors football. While gameplanning for an opponent, Campbell wonders how offensive lineman think he’ll rush that week. And he counters. If they’re expecting finesse, he’ll shift to power. Stick his hands into their chest and force linemen to trash their plans on the fly. So, if poker players think he’s cautious, his bluff is more powerful. Then, he’ll play certain hands loose simply to keep ‘em guessing.
He offers one pro tip: Many players take their sweet time when they have a strong hand because they’re trying to get everyone else thinking they’re on the fence.
“You’re not fooling anybody with that!” Campbell says. “It’s like an offensive lineman trying to pretend like he’s going to come down on me, but I can see your foot’s all the way back. You’re trying to lean forward. Come on, you’re not.”
Countless athletes slip into depression when they retire and Campbell knows it’s rooted in the loss of a competitive outlet. Lord knows he’ll severely miss the sport he has played since age 6. Poker could be the perfect outlet. Another way to smooth the off-ramp? Over the years, he has talked to peers about getting therapy before retiring so the therapist has a full grasp of your mental state before the cheering stops for good.
When it’s time, he’ll be ready.
But, it’s not time. Not yet.
Even after playing 242 games, earning six Pro Bowls, winning PFWA defensive player of the year honors in ’17 and knowing Baby No. 2 was on its way, Campbell felt compelled to play a 16th season. There are better ways for a 37-year-old to spend a Sunday than crash into another 300-pounder 50+ times. The short explanation: He’s still hungry. He promises to go “100 miles an hour” this 2023 season and “burn all the tread” he can on his tires. Defensive lineman do not last this long, and they most certainly do not perform at this level. Year 1 to Year 16, there’s been almost no drop-off in his game. Last weekend, Campbell made a string of plays vs. one of the best young tackles in football: 22-year-old Penei Sewell.
He’s essentially your grandfather splitting wood out back in a flannel as temps climb into the 90s.
Everyone gathers ‘round the window in awe: How in the hell is he still doing this?
How Calais Campbell keeps going… and going… and going should serve as a template for any football player hoping to stick beyond the three-year average. He has wisdom to share, a ring to chase, no reason to stop. Campbell points out that Bruce Smith played 19 seasons. Reggie White, 15. Julius Peppers, 17. After first cautioning that he’s not on their level, Campbell sits up straight. Changes his tune. Sees zero reason to stop.
“If they can do it, why can’t I?” Campbell says. “Why not?”
No wonder this transaction on March 31 left everyone dumbfounded. With several contenders interested — the Buffalo Bills, Philadelphia Eagles, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, even the Jacksonville Jaguars — Campbell chose… Atlanta? Pointing out that this preference alone should force everyone to take the Falcons seriously prompted a ruckus. Campbell heard the masses dismiss his one-year, $7 million deal as nothing but a money-grab. Talk he labels certifiably “crazy.” Money? He’s got money. But thank you for your concern. Truth is, Campbell would’ve taken less to play in Atlanta.
“When you read that kind of stuff,” Campbell says, “it’s like ‘Man, they don’t understand me.’”
Go Long is powered by you. No ads, no sponsors. We’re committed to longform journalism in pro football. Thank you for joining our community.
Subscribers can access all features, all profiles, all columns, all podcasts:
The more Campbell plays poker, the more he learns that the game has evolved tremendously the last 10 years. Math has entered the equation like never before with the best players processing different equations in their head based on pot odds, equity in hand, etc. “The percentage your hand wins,” Campbell adds, “versus a range of hands.” He reads books. Studies videos of poker legends. Today, information — not intuition — often drives decisions in poker. Similar to the analytics boom in football. All fine, all logical. People feel warm and fuzzy inside when numbers support a decision. But, to him, intuition is always most powerful.
And the Falcons sure as hell are a franchise that operates on instinct. Complete rebels.
GM Terry Fontenot and head coach Arthur Smith drafted a tight end fourth overall in 2021 (Kyle Pitts), a running back eighth overall in 2023 (Bijan Robinson), inked an offensive guard (Chris Lindstrom) to a five-year, $102.5 million contract, a safety (Jessie Bates) to a four-year, $64 million deal, and, oh, you thought they’d trade for Lamar Jackson? Or go for broke in the draft? No, and no. Desmond Ridder, a third-rounder, was declared The Guy from Day 1 of the offseason.
A string of choices that led to much snickering in the basements of mothers around the country.
But when Smith detailed the Falcons’ plan to bludgeon opponents this season, Campbell loved it.
Every instinct told him that this team could win… with one concern.
When the Falcons asked Campbell on his free-agent visit why he was hesitant, he was blunt: “Desmond Ridder.” The legend is true: Campbell sat down with the team’s offensive coordinator to watch film of the quarterback. Only, it wasn’t the visuals that sold him. After all, the longtime vet had already done his research. It was the fact that when Campbell looked into the eyes of Smith and Fontenot, he could tell they weren’t bluffing simply to get him to sign that dotted line. Both genuinely believed in the QB. Both were putting their careers on the line for this quarterback. The Falcons insisted that Ridder had the right “make-up,” Campbell recalls, and that the QB was “a hardnosed, tough guy who was going to work his butt off to improve.”
His entire football life, Campbell preferred the teammate who busts ass over the teammate who is ridiculously talented.
“I know hard work is the only way,” he says. “And I could just see in their eyes that they believed.
“That was a big part of it for me — knowing that they believed in him and were putting their jobs on it. I could see it in their eyes and, in my research, I was like, ‘OK, even if he’s just OK, we’re going to be good. If he messes around and becomes good, we’re going to be really tough to beat.’”
The Falcons are 2-1. It’s been a mixed bag.
And it’s unequivocally true that as long as Calais Campbell — a powerhouse of consistency — is lining up on this defensive line, everyone needs to take the Falcons seriously.
He buried these memories for a full decade. From age 12 to 22, Calais Campbell never spoke publicly or, hell, privately about the six months his family spent inside a Denver homeless shelter. His best friends through high school and college never had a clue and he suppressed this period of his life even more than that. The only time Campbell even consciously thought about his homelessness was if he needed to grit out one or two more reps in the weight room.
Why? He was embarrassed.
“I figured that I’d block it out of my memory,” Campbell says, “like it never really happened.”
Today, it’s obvious that living in a homeless shelter tipped the first domino. If we want to understand how Campbell is slaying convention, start in the shelter.
The reason Mom, Dad and their six boys ended up here wasn’t complicated. Both parents lost their jobs at the same time and couldn’t pay the mortgage on their home, so the family was evicted. There were many mouths to feed and two older sisters were in college. The exact dates are blurry, but Calais knows he was in seventh grade. Knows it was hot outside when they entered the shelter and that they absolutely stayed here through Christmas because that’s a Christmas he’ll never forget. Thanks to so many generous donations, the boys received more presents than they ever have in their life.
Eventually, they worked their way out.
Mom and Dad landed decent jobs, pieced money together, and the Campbells moved into a five-bedroom home before Calais’ freshman year of high school.
It was precisely then — nearly 14 years old, starting anew — that Calais was asked by his father, Charles, for his goals that school year. Calais said he wanted to start on the varsity football team. But, not only that. He wanted to play in the NFL. “And that,” he chuckles, “was like a mistake.” Dad told him there are a lot of kids who are tall, athletic, fast. “What’s going to separate you from everybody else,” Dad said, “you’ve got to outwork them.’”
With that, Charles started taking his boys to a track at a nearby school. First, they ran a mile and did drills. Then, Dad added a lap. Then, he made it two miles. For those two months before football season started, the training sessions with Dad only grew more intense. Calais can still hear his Dad: “You asked for this!” One by one, his brothers started tapping out. (“We didn’t ask for this,” they said.) This became routine. After he got off of work — each day — Dad took Calais to the track for 1-on-1 training.
Dad became his hero. Dad was determined to do everything imaginable to turn his son’s dream into a reality. In the process, he knew he was teaching his boy a valuable lesson that’d apply to anything in life: Anything was possible through hard work.
“My relationship with my Dad,” Calais says, “is so much bigger than sports. My Dad is my favorite person.”
His game took off. Into his senior year of high school, Calais had interest from power programs all over the country. Unfortunately, his Dad was getting sick. Very sick. Calais didn’t think much of his father shuttling in and out of the hospital. Maybe because Charles never stopped training his son. When they visited the University of Miami — Calais’ No. 1 choice — Dad couldn’t even walk under his own power. But there he is, driving around campus in a cart.
Before one hospital visit, Charles promised Calais he’d be out in time to catch his game.
Then, a weird sight.
All game, Calais looked over to the sideline — exactly where Dad always sat — and Dad was nowhere to be found. Mom was in attendance and Mom never came to games. Afterward, Nateal told her son that Dad had taken a turn for the worse and was still in the hospital. Charles, 61, soon died of complications due to liver failure on Nov. 26, 2003.
Guilt rushed through 17-year-old Calais. Was this pursuit of the NFL forcing Dad to exert too much energy? Dad never stopped ripping his son through drills — and his health worsened. Only worsened. He felt terrible. He soon had an epiphany.
All of his father’s sacrifices — all of his pain — would not be in vain.
“I told him I was going to make it, so I had to make it,” Campbell says. “And so going through college at the University of Miami every day I was just like, ‘OK, whatever we’re doing? I’m going to do more.’ Because that was a mindset: Everybody’s talented. But I don’t care about everybody else. I’m going to do more. My whole time through college, I promise you nobody outworked me.”
He stayed in school for his senior year because he also promised his father he’d earn a college degree and — in 2008 — that dream became a reality. Campbell was drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the second round. In Year 1, he even reached the Super Bowl. Arizona lost a 27-23 heartbreaker to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Most importantly? He found himself reliving those shelter days. First, as motivation. Calais never wanted his own family to experience such poverty. And after Calais launched a foundation in honor of his Dad, one of his brothers compelled him to speak from the heart to those kids feeling as lost, as helpless as they did.
So, Campbell stopped running from his past. He owned it. Embraced it. Decided to spend the next 16 years working directly with homeless shelters. To this day, he tells kids: “I know exactly what you’re going through.” And he relays that lesson from Dad.
Dedicate yourself to anything in life — sports or otherwise — and you’ll create a better life.
One more epiphany was needed, of course. To understand why Calais Campbell can be the centrifugal force vaulting a forgotten franchise into contention, jump to the offseason between ‘12 and ‘13. When he was preparing for his sixth NFL season.
He was drifting. He was simply having fun as an NFL player. “Happy to be around,” he admits, and most certainly not trying to be the absolute best he could be. His stats were similar to those who made the Pro Bowl, so he wondered why he wasn’t getting national love. And that’s when John Abraham — 133.5 career sacks ‘n all — was ruthlessly blunt. In the twilight of his own career, Abraham informed Campbell there are three levels of players: Good, great and elite. If he strives to be elite, he could not drift.
There was nothing magical to his football turnaround. Nor did Campbell claim to speak directly to God like Demario Davis. He was sick of being “good,” thus began studying the players he considered elite. And the sport’s legends. And athletes in other sports. And took his work to a new level. It’s zero coincidence that Campbell reached all six of his Pro Bowls in his next seven seasons.
This NFL veteran loathes hyperbole, urban myths, saying anything to puff up his own image. But from 2013 to today? He’s adamant that nobody worked harder in the NFL. If anyone earned an accolade over him, fine. It wouldn’t be due to a lack of effort. He told himself to train harder than J.J. Watt, who was going full Rocky IV by training out of a cabin in Wisconsin. Campbell even decided with his wife to put off having children until later in his career. Becoming elite was an obsession.
“Everybody’s talented, right?” Campbell says. “There’s a lot of talented people. Am I talented? Yes, sure. I’m gifted being 6-8, 300 pounds. But what really separates anybody — any talented person — is a work ethic and the time they’re willing to put into the gym.”
He had several influences, thinking back to how aging vets like Adrian Wilson, Bertrand Berry, Vonnie Holliday and Dwight Freeney battled Father Time. Even longtime Steeler James Harrison was incredibly helpful. Harrison told Campbell that he flew specialists in to keep his body in top shape. Before he knew it, Campbell bought a hyperbaric chamber, started using an arc machine religiously and built up a team of six different body specialists. Some were local. Some he flew it. It got to the point where Campbell was seeing a different person each day.
Cheap, it was not. Campbell invested in himself.
His play style on Sundays soon reflected everything Campbell did the other six days of the week. Personal glory was never his No. 1 motivator. He knows he easily could have north of 150 sacks at this point of his career, but Campbell was never obsessed with chasing Smith (200), White (198), Kevin Greene (160) and Peppers (159 1/2) at the top of the all-time sack list. He’s at 99 career sacks. Team defensive stats always mattered most to Campbell.
“I know for a fact how easy it is to jump around blocks every time and just run up the field,” Campbell says. “But that’s just not my game. That’s not who I pride myself on. It’s playing each play at a maximum level, trying to be as efficient as I can. I still produce. I still want to make my plays because I know sacks are going to help us win ball games. But I pride myself in the run game, too. I want to be the best run defender that’s out there. What I really want is for us to get off the field on third down. So, I don’t really care so much about the actual stats. I want to win ball games. So if me taking up two or three guys so that another guy can get free? One hundred percent. I’ll do that any day of the week.”
He supplies one example from Atlanta’s 24-10 win over Carolina in Week 1.
The Falcons had a “flush stunt” called, which asks Campbell to occupy a guard and then penetrate. On such a play, there’s a chance the guard moves to linebacker Lorenzo Carter and gives Campbell a clear path to the QB. But Campbell didn’t want to live in maybes — “let’s make it definite,” he says — so he enticed Panthers guard Chandler Zavala to stick with him. He charged hard off the line into Zavala, before then spinning wide. A savvy move that allowed Carter to blitz freely up the gut for the sack. Few watched this play in real time and knew Campbell created the sack, but Carter did. Carter thanked his teammate afterward for the red-carpet rush to quarterback Bryce Young.
Adds Campbell: “I’ve always been that way. Go through my career down the line. If I can help somebody else make a big play to help us win the ball game, I’ll do it 100 percent.”
He brings up Justin Smith. The ex-49ers defensive end never had 10 sacks in any of his 14 seasons but anchored that exceptional defense by crowbarring linemen on T/E stunts with his anvil of a bicep. He’s the reason Aldon Smith racked up 33.5 sacks in 2011 and 2012. Since Smith wasn’t actually trying to win off this hump move — and since his arms weren’t fully extended — the tactic would go unflagged. To the chagrin of offensive linemen. In Green Bay, it drove guys mad. Campbell, who adopted similar maneuvers, who has never been called for defensive holding, offers a bulletproof retort: “How many offensive linemen hold us and it doesn’t get called? … There is an art to when to let go. It’s football. You’ve got to get your hands on people. So I get my hands on guys all the time. I’m grabbing and holding the same way they do me.”
This all requires peak physical performance.
Nowadays, he’s got an ankle specialist. A tissue massage therapist. He’s into dry-needling to treat muscle pain. Campbell jokes that he probably is doing too much. Specialists are constantly cycling through his home with contraptions. Thing is, he’s not exactly sure who’s most responsible for keeping him around this long, so he won’t eliminate anything. Not even as his family grows. His first child was born in May 2020. His second child, a week before this 2023 season began. Balancing life and football is getting tougher, but he’s not decelerating into retirement. One driving factor is making sure there’s zero debate when it comes to his enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Canton is absolutely a goal.
So is winning that elusive Super Bowl ring.
To this point, he’s been tortured. Only tortured.
One game — one play, specifically — still haunts him.
There is zero doubt in his mind. If the 2017 Jacksonville Jaguars play Nick Foles and the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl, they win.
The game is not particularly close.
“We would’ve dominated,” Campbell says. “We had the match-up.”
“But Tom Brady is Tom Brady. If you give him a chance, he’ll take it.”
Most in Duuuuuvall will assume he’s referencing one simple fact about that AFC Championship Game: “Myles Jack wasn’t down.” The declaration has become scripture for fans. With 13 minutes to go — the Jags up, 20-10 — Jack stripped the ball cleanly from running back Dion Lewis, barrel-rolled untouched and took off the other direction. With a convoy of Jaguars in front of him, there’s little doubt he would’ve scored to make this a 27-10 game. Alas, officials blew the play dead. Jack spiked the football in anger. Instead of picking up a TD, the Jaguars merely gained possession, punted the ball back to New England and, correct, if you miss your shot at taking out the Michael Myers, he’ll kill you.
Campbell still cannot believe officials blew their whistles. Every crew should know it’s best to let the play go. If needed, take six points off the board.
But, no. This is not the play that gives Campbell the shivers. His trauma’s more personal. He points to the Patriots’ next offensive possession. Third and 18. Ten minutes left. Ball at the Pats’ 25. Brady could’ve poured himself a cup of a tea in the pocket before connecting with Danny Amendola in tight coverage over the middle for 21 yards. Scan the field and you’ll see that Campbell was nowhere to be found. Both he and Yannick Ngakoue took this play off. Campbell pulled himself off the field that play due to pain in his knee. It was swollen, and he assumed the Jags had this locked up without him.
Don’t give him an out. He won’t take it. Campbell estimates his knee was 80 percent and he “definitely could’ve played.” Instead, for a brief moment, he forgot who he was. All those lessons from Dad.
“If I’m on the field, we make that stop,” Campbell says. “And that is what really haunts me. It’s not so much that we lost the game. Football is football, but I made a bad choice to not be on the field in that moment because he held that ball for a while. And even with my knee bothering me a little bit, I would’ve had enough presence to get in his face and make that a hard throw. Even if I didn’t get a sack, I make it a hard throw for him.
“That’s the one that really breaks my heart because I should have made that choice to be on the field.
“I do believe that if I was on the field there, we would’ve gotten that stop and probably would’ve gone to the Super Bowl and won the Super Bowl.
Become a champion and everything changes.
The 2017 Jaguars strut into the same conversation as the ’85 Bears, ’00 Ravens, ’13 Seahawks as one of the greatest defenses in NFL history. Sure, those Bears mashed Steve Grogan in the Super Bowl. Dethroning Tom Brady? In his house? “Wow,” says Campbell with an uneasy chuckle. “It could’ve been special.” He would’ve been the face of it all, too. Campbell was the best defensive player in the sport that season, finishing with 67 tackles and 14.5 sacks. In the locker room, served as the conscience, the leader, the baritone-voiced glue holding all of these combustible personalities together. One play. One pressure. He was that close. Instead, Brady slit the Jaguars’ throats — one of his 55 career fourth-quarter comebacks — and Jacksonville’s defense dismantled over the next few years. In 2020, Campbell signed with the Baltimore Ravens and never got past the divisional round of the playoffs in three seasons.
In 2023, he was a free agent. Again. Still determined to play a 16th season.
The day of Super Bowl 57 in Arizona last February, he tweeted a few words that were viewed 5.3 million times: “I really want to play in Super Bowl 58.”
So, why Atlanta? The courtship of Calais explains why these Falcons mean business.
The Eagles made an offer first. It was low — “super low,” Campbell adds — at $3 million with incentives. But teams that reach the Super Bowl can do this. Campbell stashed this offer away as one he’d consider after the draft. Miami made a similar offer. Detroit called. Buffalo called, and called, and said they were in the $4 million range. Campbell loved their offense and knew the city was better than everyone says. But he couldn’t get past the cold. He saw himself giving the Bills only 10 to 15 quality plays per game by December.
Granted, Campbell knew he was needed. One Bills personnel man was a scout in Arizona with him, and Campbell flat-out told him why Buffalo’s defense struggled in its 27-10 playoff loss to Cincinnati. Defensive linemen were haphazardly flying upfield, creating creases for Joe Mixon to gain 105 yards and a touchdown. As opposed to the week prior. In a narrow 24-17 win over Campbell’s Ravens, Mixon mustered only 39 yards. That’s because Baltimore’s front was two-gapping to create more of a barricade. Whether this was a matter of coaching or players seeking stats in Buffalo, he’s not.
But Campbell knows firsthand that it pays to have a veteran in that playoff moment.
“This is for the Super Bowl. Who cares about the stats?” Campbell says. “Let’s just build a wall and make them earn every yard they get. If they get three yards on the run play, they’re not going to win the ball game doing that.”
By June, the Bills inked defensive tackle Ed Oliver to a four-year, $68M extension. Given how last season ended — Oliver had one tackle in 56 snaps vs. Cincy — one could argue Campbell warranted a chunk of this dough. The vet says the team never gave him a concrete offer beyond that $4M range. And while they did ask him to fly in for a visit, part of Campbell thought that if the Bills really wanted him, they would’ve made a more competitive offer. Of course, it would’ve been awfully difficult for him to get past the cold, the snow.
“I was just thinking about how much fun it would be playing,” he says. “I want the game to be fun.”
Fun is what Aaron Rodgers promised. The New York Jets quarterback recruited Campbell — hard. He told him they’d win a Super Bowl together. Rodgers. This defense. Like most of America, the longtime vet was seduced by the hype. A few texts from Rodgers and… voila. Suddenly, the cold wasn’t much of a detriment.
New York moved to No. 1 on his list.
A reunion with the Jaguars was briefly possible. One of his D-Line coaches in Arizona is now the D-Line coach in Jacksonville — Brentson Buckner told Campbell he was exactly what the Jags needed. What a storybook opportunity this was to face those ‘17 demons head-on. To return to his third-and-18 playoff moment and stay on the field. Yet, Campbell didn’t get the sense that GM Trent Baalke really wanted him. He appreciated Baalke’s honesty — the last thing any NFL player wants is a bait-and-switch — but the GM told Campbell straight-up that he’d play a secondary role on this young D-Line. Serve as more of a vocal leader.
Campbell knew he had more to give.
Then, his phone buzzed.
Unfamiliar with the area codes, he thought the Bills were calling him. He answered. It was Arthur Smith, head coach of the Falcons. A team that wasn’t even on his radar. Their conversation lasted only 15 minutes, but he was impressed. It was clear, instantly, that the Falcons had a plan to win and they viewed Campbell as a crucial piece. He started doing his research and realized Smith’s offense was better than he thought in 2022. Eight of Atlanta’s 10 losses were by one score or less and — upon replaying those losses — Campbell realized the Falcons simply struggled to finish.
“To me that says it’s a young team,” Campbell says. “It’s a young team that needs a guy like me.”
Unfamiliar with this city, Campbell was willing to visit. Almost immediately, he was “blown away.” Campbell felt sincerely wanted. He loved the coaching staff. Inside his office, defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen broke down the scheme for Campbell and detailed exactly why he’d excel here. The team’s shopping spree was intriguing — Campbell knew these were players who’d immediately elevate the defense. From Bates to linebacker Kaden Elliss to defensive tackle David Onyemata. Every time he watched Saints film, Onyemata popped. And, yes, he believed that the Falcons believed in Ridder. And Campbell knew firsthand that a strong work ethic can raise anyone’s ceiling.
This visit gave him second thoughts.
“Atlanta made me feel like I was important to where they wanted to go,” Campbell says. “They made me feel like they needed me to be a contender for the Super Bowl.”
Emotions he mostly kept to himself. He had already told his agent he was leaning toward the Jets because of those Rodgers texts. Naturally, his agent committed to the Jets, delivered the good news to Campbell and… it didn’t feel right. Campbell hung up and called his best friend and advisor, Josh Barnes. Told him he really sees himself in Atlanta. “If you really feel strongly about it,” Barnes said, “call him up. You didn’t sign a contract yet. Call him up and tell him you want to go to Atlanta.” Another one of Campbell’s friends who played in the NFL agreed.
Fifteen minutes later, Campbell called his agent to say he wanted to be a Falcon.
At the time, Atlanta’s offer was actually worth less than New York’s offer.
The agent recommended he sleep on it and Campbell woke up certain he needed to head to Atlanta. They got more money out of the Falcons — not that it would’ve made a difference at all.
“The money part wasn’t even a big deal,” Campbell adds. “That was on my agent: Let me see what I can get from ‘em. But I told him, ‘I'll take less to go to Atlanta because I really want to go to Atlanta.’ Which is crazy. I said, ‘I’ll take less to go to Atlanta versus somebody that comes up with more because I really want to go to Atlanta.’”
The reason: Campbell believes Smith and Fontenot have built a machine the NFL’s not prepared to stop. Maybe running backs cannot earn top dollar on the individual level, but we’re seeing the great counter. Campbell credits Bill Belichick for planting the thought into minds two years ago. With NFL defenses fielding 215-pound “linebackers” capable of covering deep over routes and tight ends man to man, NFL offenses are now realizing it’s best to bruise ‘em up in the run game.
“In the run game,” Campbell adds, “that guy has to take on a 300-pound offensive lineman. They don’t want to do that.”
Nor does that player want to tackle Tyler Allgeier, 220 pounds of muscle, steamrolling downhill. Or Cordarrelle Patterson. Even the fundamental act of tackling has been siphoned out of training camps across the country. Today’s NFL was ripe for a team to turn the clock back to 1995… with a twist. The Falcons recognized this as a trend and did not merely react with a draft pick or two. They made Chris Lindstrom the highest-paid guard in NFL history and drafted Texas wunderkind Bijan Robinson as the new centerpiece to everything. Smith is no prehistoric playcaller, either. He aims to dizzy defenses with motion and misdirection to create devastating angles for his backs.
Left tackle Jake Matthews is the longest-tenured Falcon. He’s been here 10 years.
He says everything begins with Smith’s mindset to out-work everyone.
“An old-school mentality,” Matthews says. “It’s hard to maintain that, but we take a lot of pride in it. It’s who we want to be.”
To him, this boils down to something as mundane as how the offense breaks the huddle. Lollygagging isn’t permitted. Smith wants all 11 hustling to the line of scrimmage and then firing off the ball. Echoing Wyatt Teller in Cleveland, Matthews acknowledges that it’s a hell of a lot more satisfying as a lineman to run block. This further fuels the mentality Smith seeks.
“You take it to them versus them bringing it to you,” Matthews says. “It’s almost freeing. You get to cut it loose. Not as much thinking and it’s more getting after it.”
Adds tight end Jonuu Smith: “Art is going to do whatever it takes to win, man. That theme may be different every week. Our opponents, they don’t have to line up and play how we practice it during the week.”
Too often, coaches and GMs construct rosters and gameplans out of fear of failure. They’re chasing Kyle Shanahan. They’re obsessed with the Next Big Thing at quarterback out of college. They’re told by every capologist with a calculator that it’s foolish to break the bank for safeties and guards. Malpractice to draft a running back in the top 10. The more teams try to do the same thing, the more it creates an opportunity.
Watch a Miami Dolphins game. Mike McDaniel is devising offensive plays we’ve never seen.
The Falcons are trying to be bold in their own regard, and Bates sees a trickle-down effect. Day-to-day, players start to see everything with an open mind. Which leads to fresh ideas and, the Falcons hope, wins. Many wins.
“Everybody likes to follow the wave and what’s ‘right’ and what everybody’s doing — like that’s the only right way to do it,” says Bates. “But I think it’s good. It helps us as players kind of think outside the box as well. Starting from the top with the GM and head coach. Those guys believing. They don’t really care about what’s being said outside this building. What’s being written up. They care about the men in this room.”
Bates isn’t going to lie. The money is swell.
Still, he also believes Atlanta can realistically contend for a Super Bowl. He was a major part of the transformation in Cincinnati and sees the same early signs with this defense. “We’re trying to build something very special,” Bates says. “Very similar. But in our own style.” Coaches have an “open conversation” with players through gameplanning and Bates’ sharp football IQ is already leading to wins. In the opener, Bates knew that the Carolina Panthers weren’t going to put too much on Young’s plate. When he studied the Panthers’ preseason snaps and watched film from head coach Frank Reich’s Colts days, it all linked up.
Reich was using the same route concepts.
Bates jumped two of them for two interceptions.
There is one (major) difference between Cincy and Atlanta, of course. The Bengals built around a first overall pick named Joe Burrow, while the Falcons are relying on a 74th overall pick in Ridder.
Nonetheless, it’s not too complicated to Campbell. Get into the playoffs, don’t turn the ball over and if Ridder can hit “a couple” big plays? Yes, he repeats that the Falcons can beat anyone. He’s seen it. Atlanta pounded San Francisco by two touchdowns with Marcus Mariota at QB.
“Now if he messes around and can have a good game, then… think about it,” Campbell says.
There is a worst-case scenario, of course.
If Ridder proves to be a marginal NFL starter, work ethic won’t matter. This will all blow up in the Falcons’ faces. All of the sparkling additions will prove to be irrelevant, and no amount of hilariously-fun Bijan jukes will matter. Instead, Smith and Fontenot will forever kick themselves for not drafting Micah Parsons and Sauce Gardner in back-to-back years, and Atlanta will start over. Again. Not that such a doomsday scenario has entered anybody’s mind here. The unselfish presence at the epicenter of it all — the one with a voice of a football god — is undeterred by last week’s 20-6 loss to the Lions.
We chatted a second time by phone for this story. A few days before Campbell flew to London to face the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Campbell still sees exactly what he did in March and expresses a “strong desire” to pull the absolute best out of his teammates and find that “brotherhood” every championship contender needs.
“And it’s funny,” Campbell continues, “I don’t think anybody — anybody — thought that the Atlanta Falcons would be a playoff team or compete for Super Bowl. But for me, I saw the potential, I did my research and I really believe that this could be a special year. And obviously the outside world doesn’t really matter to our success or not. We’re going to be successful based off the work we put in. Whether people believe in us now or don’t, it doesn't really matter. If we continue to win ballgames, more people will jump on the bandwagon.”
He calls the Jaguars another desperate team.
If the Falcons are who he thinks they are, then they win this game. They take Jacksonville’s best shot and find a way.
Campbell calls Atlanta a “13-win team” once. Then, twice. Then, explains why again.
Defense, plus a run game, plus third-down success.
“I feel like this year is a special year,” he says. “Any great person, Muhammad Ali or anybody else can make predictions. You have to go out there and make yourself look like a prophet by the work ethic. So I’m definitely pushing the guys and, in turn, they’re pushing me. We’ve got some great leaders on the team already, so I’m just happy to put my hand in the pile. It’s going to be a great place, a special place.”
He's speaking on his off day. A rare chance to hang out with his son, Dakari, who can be heard in the background asking Dad to hang out.
Before signing off, though, Calais Campbell has one more thought.
Call it pure intuition at this poker table.
“Hopefully,” he says, “we’ll catch back up on the phone in February. And you’ll say, ‘You knew it. You said it.’”