One year and one day ago, Cam Cameron was relieved of his duties as coach of the Miami Dolphins.
Many fired coaches are comfortable spending a year or two on a fishing boat or in a golf cart, content to allow their former employer to pad their bank account rather than make an immediate return to the sideline and forfeit guaranteed money.
"[My wife] Missy would tell you, I’m a football coach. There was never a thought in my mind that I’d sit out football for a couple of years and collect on a contract,” Cameron said. “I was going to get right back in it.”
And he did, joining the Baltimore Ravens’ coaching staff as offensive coordinator, his enthusiasm hardly tarnished from the wear and tear of that disastrous season with the Dolphins -- one win, 15 losses. Today, the Ravens and Cameron return to Miami to open the postseason against his former team.
Although the arrival of a new head coach and rookie quarterback has received more attention, the addition of Cameron was among the most important moves of the off-season. Less than a year later, the Ravens, long-feared for their tenacious defense, suddenly have an offense that can move the ball, that doesn’t treat the first-down marker as a land mine and doesn’t need a GPS to find the end zone.
“He has taken this offense where it couldn’t take itself,” said John Matsko, offensive line coach. “He had a vision for this offense and he’s turned this offense into that vision.”
Asked about returning to Miami this weekend, Cameron shrugs his shoulders and says it’s just another game. Because that’s what coaches say. And Cameron has always been a coach.
He says he knew when he was 14 years old. Cameron’s stepfather, Tom Harp, was head coach at Indiana State University.
“He was always a perfectionist,” says Harp, who also coached at Cornell and Duke. “One day we were watching North Carolina play basketball and Phil Ford does this 360-degree dunk. Suddenly, Cam puts on his sweatshirt, goes outside in 20-degree weather. He comes in an hour later and says, ‘I can do it.’ ‘Do what?’ ‘A 360 layup.’ ”
Cameron was a two-sport star at South Vigo High School in Terre Haute, Ind., recruited to play quarterback at Indiana by Lee Corso. After two seasons, though, the school’s basketball coach, Bob Knight, asked Corso if Cameron could play on the basketball team as well.
“I brought Cameron in and said, ‘You want to be a coach, don’t you?’ ” Corso remembers. “He said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, I’m going to give you the opportunity to work with one of the best coaches of all time. And it ain’t me.’ ”
Cameron juggled the responsibilities of both teams, even when Corso left and was replaced by Sam Wyche, who would quickly establish himself as one of the game’s most innovative offensive minds. As quarterback, Cameron always had an intimate understanding of the offense, but his interest went beyond that. Playing under Wyche, Indiana was experimenting with a no-huddle offense, tinkering with snap counts and setting trends that are still around 25 years later.
“I’m not sure I can put my finger on what you see, but you sense the way a player pays attention, the way a player picks up not just the play, but the whole concept, the philosophy, all the subtleties of the play,” Wyche says. “He had all of that.”
When Cameron completed his business degree, Knight, as irrepressible as he was successful, told him he was too smart for coaching and encouraged him to enter law school. So Cameron took the LSAT and visited with law school professors. But it didn’t feel right.
“I went back and told him, I just want to coach,” Cameron, 47, recalled. “In looking back, it was smart what he did. He wanted to make sure coaching was what I really wanted to do. Coach Knight always wants to push you to something bigger and better, and it made me explore some things. But deep down in my heart, I knew this is what I wanted to do.”
So Knight helped arrange a job for Cameron on the staff of Bo Schembechler, the legendary coach at Michigan. Nearly 25 years and six jobs later, Cameron is among the most respected offensive minds in the game.
For all the success he had in ensuing jobs with the Redskins and Chargers, what he has done in a relatively short period with the Ravens could forever be highlighted on his resume. This season’s team improved almost a full touchdown over last season’s, averaging 24.1 points per game, the second-most in team history.
Cameron has spent years tweaking his system, but in simple terms, it’s run out of an I-formation and noted for its numbered pass routes -- many aimed downfield -- plus quick throws to tailbacks and a power running game. In addition, this season Cameron has consistently mixed in more trick plays than with his recent teams.
But as an offensive mind, Cameron really made his mark with the Chargers, where his offenses broke records set by Don Coryell’s teams from the late 1970s and early ‘80s. He also helped send Philip Rivers and Drew Brees to Pro Bowls. League observers say he could’ve been a head coach there, taking over a talented group, but the Chargers dragged their feet firing Marty Schottenheimer in February 2007. By the time they pulled the trigger, Cameron had already accepted a job with a talent-depleted Dolphins team.
Saddled by injuries, the Dolphins nearly became the NFL’s first winless team last season. Their lone win came in December against the Ravens, a game that provided one of the death knells for former Ravens coach Brian Billick’s career in Baltimore.
Those who have watched Cameron’s development over the years never saw the Dolphins debacle as a serious setback.
“Everybody goes through that. I mean, [Vince] Lombardi had years things just didn’t fall right,” says Wyche, who coached the Bengals to the Super Bowl in 1988.
” . . . I think Cam, over the long run, is going to be measured as one of the better offensive minds to ever coach in the game.”
Last January, John Harbaugh, a career assistant given the keys to the Ravens, certainly thought so. Within days of accepting the head coaching job, Harbaugh pegged Cameron as a top target.
“I guess you never know how something will play out,” Cameron said. “I prayed about it, talked with my family. But the discussion that John and I had, it was a pretty easy decision.”
And installing his offense was almost as effortless. It didn’t hurt that several Ravens coaches have worked in some version of the offense before -- Matsko, running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery and wide receiver coach Jim Hostler.
“I’ve been as fortunate as any guy could be,” Cameron says. “It’s truly a collective effort. Almost every guy I’ve ever worked with has some kind of fingerprints on what you’re seeing.”