GREEN BAY – The coach sheds credit like a bucking bronco.
Whether it’s the undrafted successes or the Pro Bowl offensive linemen cultivated under his watch, James Campen always will point to the player, not the coach, as the citation to this story.
Getting the Packers’ longtime assistant coach to talk about himself is a losing proposition. He’ll uncork a self-deprecating joke and quickly shift the topic from himself. Anything to wriggle free of recognition for his role in the nine Pro Bowl selections Green Bay’s offensive line has combined for since Campen took over the position full-time in 2007.
That’s not to mention the growing list of late-round draft picks and college free agents who not only have made the roster, but also went on to enjoy lengthy NFL careers.
Campen will say it’s a coincidence, a product of good scouting and ambition, but those who have developed within Campen’s walls tell a different tale – one of a coach willing to do whatever it takes to help his players succeed.
“You can’t really say enough about Campy and what he’s been able to do year after year with us,” said left tackle David Bakhtiari, a former fourth-round pick who has now been selected to a pair of All-Pro teams. “Growing guys within the offense, listening to things we have to say, and him coaching us up in his little points.”
The pedigree of Campen’s pupils comes in all forms. Sure, there have been a few blue-chip prospects such as Bryan Bulaga and Chad Clifton, but the Packers largely have built their line around overlooked players with a chip on their shoulders.
While many NFL teams use first-round picks on any of the five starting positions, the Packers usually dig deeper. T.J. Lang, Josh Sitton and Scott Wells are just a few examples of Pro Bowlers who have emerged from the middle rounds.
Bakhtiari, who’s in the conversation as one of the league’s top left tackles, was the 18th offensive lineman taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. At the NFL Scouting Combine, there were some teams who considered moving him to guard or center.
Bakhtiari stayed at tackle and has started every NFL game he’s played in since replacing an injured Bulaga during training camp his rookie year.
The Packers’ current starting left guard, Lane Taylor, wasn’t even taken at all in 2013 despite the fact a record number of linemen were selected. Taylor waited in the wings for three seasons before making the jump to the starting lineup a year ago.
After signing an extension with the Packers in September, Taylor wound up playing two games at left tackle this year when Bakhtiari (hamstring), Jason Spriggs (hamstring) and Kyle Murphy (foot) were all sidelined. He thrived in spot duty despite never playing the position before at any level of football.
Taylor has been one of the crown jewels of the organization’s draft-and-develop mantra and one of several undrafted free agents who have honed their craft under Campen.
“He has a wealth of knowledge,” said offensive lineman Lucas Patrick, a former tryout player who played in 12 games with two starts this past season.
“You look at a Lane Taylor who came in. In my opinion, he’s one of the top 10 guards in the league. He doesn’t give up pressures. He’s a great run-blocker. He’s developed into something that’s pretty rare in this league. I think it’s partly because Coach took his strengths, helped with some areas he may not be the best at, and helped bring his level up to elite.”
JC Tretter said during a conference call with Green Bay reporters in December that Campen was one of the first people he texted after signing a free-agent contract with Cleveland last year, to thank his coach for helping ease his transition from a starting left tackle at Cornell to an NFL center.
Current Packers center Corey Linsley sings a similar tune. Unlike Tretter, Linsley came to Green Bay as a naturally trained center, starting two seasons at Ohio State.
However, Linsley was thrown into the fire as a rookie when Tretter, the incumbent starting center, sustained a knee injury that sidelined him for the first half of the year. Despite having no prior game reps with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Linsley stepped in and has since started every NFL game in which he’s played.
“The proof is in the pudding,” said Linsley, who signed a three-year extension with the Packers prior to the regular-season finale in Detroit. “Campy being a natural center himself helped a ton. In the NFL, it’s a different game than it was in college. We play a different offense entirely. His tutelage has been awesome for me over the past couple years.”
Perhaps Campen’s greatest attribute as a coach is his relatability. A former high school football coach, Campen knows how to make every player in his room feel like he’s the most important regardless of background.
A little more than a year ago, Justin McCray was working as a hotel bellman in Orlando while playing in the Arena Football League. Out of the NFL for two years, McCray signed with the Packers as a street free agent last March.
Considered the longest of longshots to make the roster, McCray spent most of the offseason program and training camp learning how to play the center position from Campen, who played for the Packers from 1989-93 after entering the league as an undrafted free agent.
While McCray made the roster as the backup to Linsley, the Miami native ended up starting eight games and playing both guard and tackle positions throughout the course of the year.
“I can’t say enough good things about Camp because I’m not a true center at all,” McCray said. “He was patient with me, teaching me center, guard and tackle. He’s a real player’s coach. He figures out what you do well and he maximizes on that. He also gave me a chance to figure out if I could play in this league, so I appreciate him a lot for that.”
Campen, quietly entering his 15th season in Green Bay, recently had run game coordinator added to his job description, though in truth it’s a role he’s handled for the past few years.
Working in concert with assistant Jeff Blasko, Campen is quick to dispense praise and slow to absorb any of it. Each person who comes into contact with Campen typically has a story or two of his insight and generosity, though most remain locked in the offensive line room he shepherds.
That’s where Campen prefers they stay. In his mind, the results are a reflection of the individuals he’s worked with.
“It works for them because they allowed it to work,” Campen said. “They opened the position up in their minds and said, ‘OK, let me try it. Make me a center or give me some tools for how I can be better.’ The same thing could be said for Lane Taylor – just go out there and play left tackle. It’s not easy to do but he accepted it and absorbed it as being a left tackle.
“I think a lot of the credit goes to the players to be able to do that.”