GREEN BAY — Justin McCray isn’t sure if his bobblehead actually looks like him. But in this case, it really is the thought that counts.
Two summers ago, McCray was in training camp with the Green Bay Packers, trying to make the unlikely transition from hotel bellman to NFL offensive lineman. By season’s end, coach Mike McCarthy would be calling him one of the team’s MVPs for his remarkable versatility amid a spate of injuries up and down the line.
But at the time, he was a nervous former undrafted free agent who’d been out of football and trying to earn an against-the-odds roster spot.
That’s why longtime offensive line coach James Campen’s training camp gift — bobbleheads for each lineman, made in their own likenesses — meant so much to McCray. Campen had them made not just for the starters, not just the guys likely to make the team, but for every single lineman on the roster in camp.
“I’m definitely better looking in real life,” McCray said, chuckling. (McCray also confirmed Monday afternoon that he still has the keepsake safely stowed away “in the same exact place in my locker” that it’s been since Campen finally gave the players the go-ahead to remove them from the offensive line meeting room after the 2017 season ended.)
“I don’t have enough time to tell you all the good stories I have about ‘Camp’ — and I feel like I’ve been here the least amount of time. But one thing in particular I’ll never forget is him talking to me during individual drills during our last minicamp practice that year. All he told me was he believed in me and that I had the tools to become a good player.
“I think it just stuck with me because it had been awhile since I believed those things myself.”
That memory — and so many others — came flowing back for McCray and his linemates earlier this week, when Campen left the Packers to become the associate head coach/offensive line coach for the Cleveland Browns. A couple took to Twitter to vent via GIFs and emojis, but the overwhelming feelings were simply disappointment and appreciation
After 15 years on the Packers’ staff — tied for the longest tenure for an assistant in the club’s 100-year history — Campen was told by new coach Matt LaFleur the team was going another direction with the offensive line coaching position, and that he was free to pursue other opportunities. So Campen did — even though he wanted to stay in Green Bay, according to multiple sources close to Campen.
“Honestly, I feel so lucky to have come in the league and have had James Campen as my coach right off the bat,” center Corey Linsley wrote in an iMessage while on a trip to Iceland with his wife, Anna. “In addition to him having played center and being able to help me personally, he is unbelievably passionate about the game itself. And that passion is contagious.
“But beyond that, he’s a hell of a man who cares deeply about every single one of his guys. I’m going to miss him a lot.”
Added veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga: “Coach Campen is a great football coach and he will be missed in our room. He’s been my coach since I was a rookie and has been a huge reason why I am the player I am today — not only because of his instruction but because of the trust and freedom he lets his guys play with.
“I am very grateful for how he stuck with me and kept believing in me through all the injuries. He gave me the confidence to come back from two ACL surgeries and play at a high level.”
Campen, 54, spent 20 seasons with the Packers, including his five-year playing career (1989-93). His coaching tenure began in 2004, when he joined Mike Sherman’s staff as the assistant offensive line coach. Mike McCarthy kept Campen when he took over for Sherman in 2006, and Campen moved up to offensive line coach when Joe Philbin — another holdover from the Sherman regime — was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2007.
McCarthy promoted Campen to offensive run-game coordinator in addition to his offensive line duties last offseason. Since 2010, the Packers have had six linemen selected to the Pro Bowl — making Campen the only offensive line coach over that time to send that many linemen to the league’s annual all-star game.
Plus, from guards Josh Sitton (fourth round, 2008) and T.J. Lang (fourth round, 2009) to franchise left tackle David Bakhtiari (fourth round, 2013) and Linsley (fifth round, 2014), the Packers consistently developed mid-round picks into top-flight starters. The Packers also often entrusted Campen to take players who primarily played one position in college and convert them to starters elsewhere in the pros.
After enduring 11 starting lineup combinations on the line in 16 games in 2017, the Packers’ opening-day offensive line this year was Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor (a 2013 undrafted free agent), Linsley, McCray and Bulaga, the team’s 2010 first-round pick. The others to start on the line this season were journeyman Byron Bell, a veteran free agent pickup who entered the league as an undrafted rookie; Lucas Patrick, a 2016 undrafted free agent; and Jason Spriggs, a 2016 second-round pick.
“It’s not like they’re pumping first-rounders in there left and right,” said Bakhtiari, who was chosen as the NFL’s first-team All-Pro left tackle this season — his third straight All-Pro honor. “His ability to develop the room, the atmosphere he creates in the room for guys to grow and learn — not just football techniques, but being a man — it’s something very special that you don’t get everywhere.
“When you look at all the guys he’s had who have had fruitful careers not coming from the cream of the crop — the typical first-round, premiere talent player coming from college — that sums up what James Campen can do.”
A new direction
Campen was under contract for the 2019 season, meaning the Packers could have kept him in Green Bay had they wanted to. But with a new head coach and a new offensive system to install, you can’t blame LaFleur for wanting his own line coach to teach the blocking techniques his scheme requires.
At the same time, not only was Campen on the staff for the Sherman-to-McCarthy transition, but that changeover included a shift in the blocking approach, as McCarthy’s first offensive coordinator, Jeff Jagodzinski, brought the zone blocking scheme to Green Bay. Gradually during the McCarthy era, the Packers became a zone/power hybrid running scheme, and several of Campen’s now-former players said they have no doubt he can coach any scheme effectively.
One thing writers covering the team learned about Campen was that he was loath to take public credit for anything his guys did. Although he wanted to be respected as a good coach, he always deflected praise publicly directed at him when asked about his players’ development.
He was also agitated when a reporter learned of his creative, customized gift for his linemen. (“You found out about that, huh? Now that’s good reporting,” he said sardonically.)
When asked about McCarthy promoting him to run-game coordinator last year, Campen replied simply, “I was very thankful of being recognized and having the opportunity to do this, which is cool. Really neat. I’ll take this and run with it. I just always believe you keep going day by day and good things will happen to you.”
Perhaps that’s why so many of his players were eager to speak on his behalf as he headed to Cleveland. While Campen surely would demand his players be respectful of his successor, you can bet that coach — whoever he is — will have a tough act to follow.
“He just believes in the guys in the room. Anything that he asks us to do, he asks us because he believes that we can do it,” McCray said. “When it’s time to work, he’s obviously about his business, but he’s a great guy to talk to about anything you need — life, football. You can talk to him about anything that you’re going through. He’s always there to listen. It’s been really good to have a coach like that.”