For one half of Sunday’s NFC Championship, the Detroit Lions looked primed for a historic run to Super Bowl LVIII, where they’d rematch the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs. In the end, a litany of errors led to Detroit surrendering a 17-point lead and, ultimately, a ticket to Las Vegas. Every miscue — a fumble here, a dropped pass there — was critical as the San Francisco 49ers roared back to life, but perhaps nothing magnified the Lions’ deflating finish more than head coach Dan Campbell being … himself.
If nothing else, Campbell has been widely and frequently lauded for his almost-maniacal commitment to aggression atop the Lions’ staff, overseeing an NFL-leading 62 fourth-down conversions in his three seasons. It’s an approach that has both tangibly and intangibly affected an organization long mired in mediocrity or worse, in a two-year span raising the Lions from a three-win team to a 12-win NFC runner-up, and perhaps more remarkably, convincing his players, his fans and experts around the NFL that maybe, just maybe, these Lions aren’t just a quirky underdog story, but a contender here to stay.
Except, when push came to shove Sunday night, under the brightest lights Motor City’s football team has seen in more than three decades, Campbell’s trademark aggression may have finally crossed the line between admirable — even enviable — and delusional.
We refer, specifically, to his pair of failed fourth-down calls against San Francisco. The first occurred early in the third quarter; the Lions were up 14, facing a fourth-and-2 from the 49ers’ 28-yard line, and Josh Reynolds dropped a would-be first-down pass from Jared Goff, preceding a San Francisco touchdown drive that pulled the game within seven. Now, had Reynolds held onto the ball, Campbell may have been celebrated for sticking to his bold tendencies, but the fact he refused a seemingly safer chance to go up three scores loomed large. The second call was more glaring: Now trailing by three halfway through the fourth quarter, Campbell’s Lions reached fourth-and-3 at San Francisco’s 30, but declined a potential game-tying field goal and saw Goff throw incomplete, preceding yet another 49ers TD drive — this one sealing the game.
“I just felt really good about us converting, and getting our momentum, and not letting them play long ball,” Campbell told reporters after the game. “They were bleeding the clock out. That’s what they do. And I wanted to get the upper hand back. It’s easy (to look back in) hindsight, and I get it. I get that. But I don’t regret those decisions. And that’s hard. You know, it’s hard. Because we didn’t come through, it wasn’t able to work out. But I don’t. I don’t. And I understand the scrutiny I’ll get, and that’s part of the gig, man. But we just … it just didn’t work out.”
Statistically, on paper, Campbell had several good reasons to uphold his reputation and go for broke. Before Sunday’s game, for example, Detroit converted 17 of 20 (or 85%) fourth-and-3 or less attempts in plus territory. And kicker Michael Badgley wasn’t necessarily going to be automatic for either field goal, entering with just a 59.1% career conversion rate for kicks between 45-49 yards. The numbers quite clearly back the aggressive approach. What they do not account for, of course, is the momentum of a live game with countless other variables, such as the 49ers’ second-half tightening on defense, or the Lions’ own second-half crumble on that side of the ball, or San Francisco’s sudden containment of top weapon Amon-Ra St. Brown, or Christian McCaffrey’s chain-moving strength that erased Detroit’s once-sturdy three-score lead.
Or, most of all, the simple fact that, unlike in most games, there’s no “next week” in the playoffs — no time for reconsidering a call, no guaranteed opportunity to try again; just the daunting possibility that the entire season, and all the entire organization has been working for, could be definitively over with the wrong move.
There’s truth to the notion that process matters more than results, because eventually, a smart process will have a better chance of producing the right results. That’s why you’ll find hordes of Campbell defenders arguing in his favor in the wake of the Lions’ disheartening exit from the playoffs, insisting that the coach is essentially only being criticized because his two gambles failed, not because the decisions were statistically bonkers. And yet, it’d also be malpractice to overlook the fact that Campbell’s loyalty to the never-say-die process had a direct hand in costing Detroit an inspiring blue-collar march to ultimate glory. Do the fans, the players, the history books remember the teams who failed in the most important moments, honoring them instead for their “sound process”? Are plaques and trophies rewarded for “the right decision” if it leads to “the wrong result”?
Maybe these questions do a disservice to the oft-informative analytics deployed across today’s NFL. But it seems just as fair to suggest that, after Detroit’s big-game defeat, the 2023 Lions truly lived and died by the Dan Campbell sword. This franchise feasted, for months, on the identity its coach forged with fearless situational decision-making. But perhaps, in Sunday’s game, with a chance to steady his quickly fading Lions, a chance to save this monumental underdog story from crashing ahead of a celebrated Super Bowl appearance, Campbell may have benefited from going against his gut, and easing the gas? From seeing the 49ers’ resurgence, and knowing that maybe, just maybe, it’d be okay to “settle” and give his team another drive to fight?
The debate will rage on for days, weeks, and perhaps months to come. It will no doubt follow Campbell into 2024, when he attempts to revive the Lions’ spirits and restore that fearless approach once more. We’ll see, if and when Detroit gets back to such a lofty stage, whether he’ll dial himself back, or double down once again. But one thing seems certain: This is a man willing to fall on his own sword if it means inspiring the men he’s charged with leading. For his sake, let’s just hope the right results eventually come.