- The Lions’ first-year offensive coordinator was out of football last year, but arrives in Detroit with a resumé full of successful reclamations. His long, winding football life, the end of Super Bowl XLIX, and being hired by the man who beat him on the most controversial play call of his life.
DETROIT — There was the season spent at tiny Westmar University in LeMars, Iowa, then Iowa State University for a year, and University of Connecticut for two more. The Packers made him a quarterbacks coach, then the Vikings asked him to turn around an offense. He did, then did the same in Seattle, winning a Super Bowl (and losing the next one in spectacular, stunning fashion). And then, a few years later, nothing.
After the Seahawks fired him at the end of the 2017 season with the offense middling and struggling to start games, there were quarterback coaching jobs he turned down as he held out for another NFL coordinator role. He'd reach out to some coaching friend, get excited about a possible gig, but slowly that burst of enthusiasm would fade. The callbacks slowed down and soon it was April and Darrell Bevell realized he’d spend his first season away from football in more than 20 years.
“It’s mentally trying,” Bevell, now the Lions coordinator, told The MMQB after a recent practice. “Once you go through it and you're done, it's a great experience. [But] it's humbling.
“I hold these jobs in high regard. I’m not one of those guys that says, Ah, I'll just get another job if I get fired, so to be in that moment was hard. It’s a huge part of who you are, and then it’s gone, and it’s like, What are you going to do now? I think I had a glimpse of what players go through when they retire. I’ve said through the years that coaching is not who I am, it’s what I do. Then I realized, you know what? It's a big part of who I am.”
Before the 2018 season, the last time Bevell wasn’t a part of a football team was in 1990. He had redshirted as a Northern Arizona freshman in 1989 before going on a two-year LDS Church mission to Cleveland. Brad Childress, then NAU’s offensive coordinator, called Bevell’s father (who was also Darrell’s high school coach at Chaparral High in Scottsdale, Ariz.) pleading for the son’s return to the team. He’d have a chance to start, Childress told him. Said Jim Bevell: “He’s got a call. He’s had a mission trip piggy-banked since before he was old enough to know anything.”
By the time Bevell was ready to return to football, Childress was at Wisconsin as a running backs coach for Barry Alvarez and a struggling Badgers program. Bevell transferred to join him there.
But after serving Cleveland’s inner city, Bevell had lost considerable weight. “He honestly looked malnourished,” Childress says. “We told him to keep his shirt on during workouts. He said the only running he’d done was from people with guns and dogs. Everybody’s looking at this kid like, ‘This is the guy who’s going to lead us out of the woods?’”
It wasn’t long before he did. Wisconsin went 5-6 in Bevell’s first year as a starter, an eighth straight losing season for the program. Then, in 1993, he led the Badgers on a Cinderella run, a 10-1-1 season culminating with a Rose Bowl victory over UCLA.
Undrafted in 1996, Bevell turned flipping offenses into a career, taking his experience as a position coach for Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay to Minnesota, where he served as Childress’ offensive coordinator.
In three seasons the Vikings went from a bottom-seven scoring offense to the 12th-best in 2008, with 37-year-old journeyman Gus Frerotte starting 11 games. A 40-year-old Brett Favre arrived in 2009 and passed for 4,202 yards, leading the Vikings to the NFC title game. But the next season, with Favre starting to show his age, the offense struggled through a 10-loss season; Childress was dismissed and Bevell not retained after the season.
At the same time, new Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was putting together a staff in Seattle and brought in Bevell to revamp an offense that had finished bottom-10 in scoring in each of the previous three seasons. And Bevell did what he does best: He fixed it.
After a transition year with former Vikings backup Tarvaris Jackson under center, Bevell advocated for a fellow Wisconsin alum, Russell Wilson. “Darrell and the GM [John Schneider] loved him all the way,” Childress says. The Seahawks landed Wilson in the third round of the 2012 draft and he beat out free-agent signee Matt Flynn to become Bevell’s starting quarterback that summer. With Wilson the perfect complement to Marshawn Lynch in a run-heavy offense, the Seahawks finished top 10 in scoring and made it to the divisional round of the playoffs, coming up just short of an upset in Atlanta. One year later, the Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII, obliterating the Broncos, 43-8.
It all speaks to what Bevell is best known for in NFL circles. In winning consistently with Frerotte, then Favre, then Wilson—three quarterbacks with stark contrasts in playing style—Bevell demonstrated an ability to mold his offensive philosophy to the player rather than preferring players who fit a certain scheme. He’s the Transformer of coordinators. Evaluate, adapt, win.
You know what happens next. Seattle went back to the Super Bowl the next year. Trailing by four in the final minute, on a second-and-goal from the 1-yard line with the game on the line—and with New England in a unique goal-line package that included extra run-stuffing linemen to counter Lynch but also three cornerbacks—Bevell called for a Ricardo Lockette slant off of a Jermaine Kearse pick. Kearse never got there, jammed by Brandon Browner upon release. Undrafted rookie Malcolm Butler jumped the pass and out-muscled Lockette at the catch-point. There were 109 pass attempts from the 1-yard line during the 2014 NFL season, and Wilson’s at the goal line in the Super Bowl—the 109th—was the only one that ended up in the hands of the other team.
But that didn’t matter. None of the statistical or tactical justifications trumped the emotional one: You have Marshawn Lynch at the 1-yard line—punch it in! Yet five years later Bevell maintains he'd call it the same way if the same situation arises.
“You’re gonna hear all kinds of things from all kinds of people,” Bevell says. “I’ve said I wouldn’t change anything and it’s true. The outcome didn't work out. It's not that it's not gut wrenching. [That] field just has to come up on TV and you get that feeling. It’ll never go away. People bring it up all the time, or its just, there. You just have to move forward.”
Bevell lasted three more seasons in Seattle, the offense growing inconsistent after Lynch’s departure and the team falling short of Super Bowl expectations as the Legion of Boom aged out.
Bevell’s dismissal from the Seahawks opened an opportunity to work with an old counterpart again. Dan Quinn, the defensive coordinator for those Seattle Super Bowl teams, asked Bevell to attend Falcons training camp, but he didn’t want Bevell to diagnose the offense. For one thing, it would have been awkward to ask second-year coordinator Steve Sarkisian to share a meeting room with Bevell, who was a candidate for Sarkisian’s job when he became available. Instead, Quinn asked Bevell to evaluate the defense.
“I wanted to know, ‘How would you attack us?’” Quinn says. “He could tell me what the offense would be looking at. On this, the disguise would not be very effective because of the nickel’s alignment. As a defensive coach you don’t always think in that way. You’d love to think like the QB but you can’t.”
For Bevell, the trip was a refreshing reminder that Quinn hadn’t altered anything about his personality or approach to be a successful NFL head coach, something front office types around the league have suggested Bevell ought to do to earn a head-coaching gig: As a former GM told me in 2014, of Bevell: “Nice guy, but I don’t see the ‘it’ or presence it takes to be a head coach.”
“One of the best things was, he was still D.Q.,” Bevell says. “He’s a great friend, and an outstanding human being. To watch him running a team was really cool. It hadn’t changed him in any way, and people were very important to him. That’s what jumps out about that visit.”
Says Quinn: “You don’t change. Some of the biggest lessons you learn, and one of the hardest parts, is the staff and those dynamics, and making sure everyone is not exactly like you. I’ve always respected Bev because he’s really true to himself and really straightforward about how he does his business.”
A few weeks after the Falcons broke camp, Bevell headed back home for a season without football. His wife, Tammy, got an invitation from another friend couple to join them on a vacation to France. “I would never even think to do that,” Bevell says. “It was amazing.” The trip was a marathon of broadened perspectives for a football lifer. The architecture stunned him: “In the U.S., we go to the northeast for our old stuff—you go there and everything so much older." A tour of the Normandy beaches brought the sacrifice of World War II into scope. “They describe five beaches and I’m thinking these five little sections, but it’s just miles and miles of beach you need a car to see. The scale was immense. And some of the things still sticking out of the water... I was touched by that experience.”
During his time out of the NFL—one year and five days, from January 11, 2018 to January, 16 2019—Bevell went to 55 BYU softball games, traveling the country to accompany his daughter Morgan, a reserve catcher on the team. “It was a total blast to be able to spend time with her and just have those conversations we hadn’t had,” Bevell says.
Through it all, Bevell stayed connected to the league as best he could. A coaching friend lent a password to the NFL's all-22 coaches film available to teams nearly immediately after Sunday’s games are over. Bevell spent his weekdays catching up. Then came the call from the Lions.
Detroit parted ways with long-time offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter after the 2018 season, and Matt Patricia wanted to meet with Bevell. They’d coached across from each other in Super Bowl XLIX but had never sat down and talked. The Lions announced the hire in January, and it wasn’t until Bevell spent a few days in the building that he realized how extraordinary his new opportunity was; every assistant he met in Allen Park either had Patriots ties or coached with Patricia at Syracuse. Bevell was the nearly the only person in the building who had no connection to either tree. “It’s a tight group,” Bevell says. “That’s when I realized it was a pretty big deal to be able to do this.”
Practices, Bevell notes, are far different under Patricia than they were under Carroll. While the Seahawks valued rhythm and consistency in daily planning, the Lions are the opposite. “You’re on your toes a lot more. With [Carroll’s] style you get in the flow and you know where to go and what to do at all times. Here you don’t, necessarily. Both work, clearly.”
There’s one other thing that stood out about Patricia: “Bev told me he’s never heard anybody use the F bomb so much,” Childress says. “I know Bev really likes him a lot.”
People bring it up all the time, or its just, there.
Of course, the Super Bowl call is here in Detroit too. Patricia was New England’s defensive coordinator when Butler jumped in front of Kearse and set in motion the break-up of a mini-dynasty in Seattle. And that was no happy accident: Along with rolling out a goal-line package they’d never used before, the Patriots had scouted the play days before and coached against it, with Butler perfecting his reaction in that exact scenario through trial and error. Still, Patricia wanted Bevell, and what better, what better endorsement could Bevell get for the legitimacy of that play call than to be hired by the guy who ran the defense that beat it?
Childress had been watching Bevell react to failures for the better part of three decades. Elevated to offensive coordinator at Wisconsin after the Rose Bowl, Childress coached Bevell for his remaining two seasons. During one game—Childress can’t recall which—Bevell snapped back at the coach during a phone conversation from the sideline to the coaches box. “He was playing poorly and I was telling him so and he barked back at me, and I said, ‘O.K., put the backup on the phone. But Darrell talked himself off the ledge and stayed in the game.” A decade later as an assistant coach, Bevell let criticism from an angry boss roll off his back. “I was tough to work for,” Childress says. “If I chewed him out, he just kept it moving.”
And now, after what many felt was the biggest failure of his professional life, Bevell remains resolute in his decision, firm in his path. Childress chalked it up to having three daughters and being the son of a high school football coach. “These guys who are coaches’ sons are different,” Childress says. “They’ve seen that hurt walk in the door on Friday night.”
On Sept. 8, Bevell will take the sideline for the regular season opener with his fourth NFL team at 49 years old. It just so happens the Lions will be visiting State Farm Stadium in Glendale, site of Super Bowl XLIX and that goal line stop. Bevell will no doubt think about it, be yanked back into that place and time. But he won’t second-guess himself. Instead, he’ll snap out of it and go about the work of taking another offense to the height of its potential. It’s a big part of who he is.
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