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Lions’ Dan Campbell under fire after gutsy fourth-down decisions fail

Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell watches action against Tampa Bay on Jan. 21 at Ford Field in Detroit.  (Tribune News Service)
By Cindy Boren </p><p>and Neil Greenberg Washington Post

Bold, aggressive game management by Coach Dan Campbell helped the Detroit Lions go from perennial doormat to playing for a spot in Super Bowl LVIII. But Campbell’s go-for-broke mentality, particularly in a couple of key fourth-down situations, cost his team dearly in Sunday’s 34-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game.

Campbell had already established himself as perhaps the most aggressive head coach on fourth downs in a league that increasingly leans on analytical advice – which often recommends fourth-down attempts when more traditional coaches once chose punts or field goal attempts. Campbell’s Lions went for it on fourth down a league-leading 33% of the time this season – far more often than the NFL average of 20%, per data from TruMedia.

In their first two playoff games this season, the Lions converted three of five fourth-down attempts, a healthy 60% clip. But they made just one of three tries Sunday, with both failures coming with the offense in field goal range in the second half. Midway through the third quarter, leading by 14, Campbell opted to go for it on fourth-and-two from the 49ers’ 28-yard line, when a field goal would have made it a three-possession game. A dropped pass ruined the play. Midway through the fourth quarter, trailing by three, Campbell again opted to go for it on fourth-and-three from the 49ers’ 30-yard line, when a field goal would have tied the score. Another incompletion gave the ball back to San Francisco, which promptly drove for a touchdown and a 10-point lead.

The two calls – both of which were close calls, according to the analytics – came amid San Francisco’s 17-point comeback, and put Campbell’s decision-making under the microscope.

“I thought Dan Campbell got out-coached severely in the second half,” ESPN’s Booger McFarland said.” … I truly understand Dan Campbell loves to go for it on fourth down … [but] sometimes you have to play the game that day and understand how your team is playing.”

Part of the argument against the aggressive approach, of course, is that things like momentum can play a role in playoff results, and that by passing on the field goal attempts, the Lions lost a chance to blunt San Francisco’s momentum – or even supercharged it.

“It’s easy in hindsight and I get it,” Campbell told reporters Sunday night. “I get that, but I don’t regret those decisions and that’s hard. It’s hard because we didn’t come through. It wasn’t able to work out. But I don’t [have regrets]. I don’t. And I understand the scrutiny I’ll get. That’s part of the gig, man.

“It just didn’t work out.”

The 49ers opened the third quarter with a long field goal drive, which set up Detroit’s first failed attempt.

“I just felt really good about us converting,” Campbell said.

But Nick Bosa pressured Detroit quarterback Jared Goff on that play, and Josh Reynolds dropped Goff’s pass. The 49ers scored two touchdowns in a two-minute, 15-second span after that failed attempt, helped by a Jahmyr Gibbs fumble on Detroit’s next possession.

The second attempt went even worse. Flushed from the pocket by pressure up the middle, Goff threw an incompletion to Amon-Ra St. Brown. The analytics slightly favored going for it, and Campbell’s defenders also pointed out that his place-kicker, Michael Badgley, does not have a particularly strong leg. The play cost the Lions an estimated three points based on the down, distance and field position of the try, per data from TruMedia, making it a less impactful moment than, for example, the 51-yard completion to San Francisco wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk in the third quarter (which bounced off a Lions defensive back), or Gibbs’s fumble.

“I just felt really good about us converting and getting our momentum and not letting them play long ball,” Campbell said of the second attempt. “They were bleeding the clock out – that’s what they do – and I wanted to get the upper hand back.”

Still, as Campbell predicted, critics lined up Sunday night. “Somebody explain the logic in not attempting to kick very makeable field goals twice at key points of the second half,” asked longtime broadcaster Howie Rose. Andrew Brandt, the former Green Bay Packers’ executive, wrote on X (formerly Twitter), “I am a fan of Dan Campbell, and players and coaches talk about him in ways far beyond the usual clichés. And I am a big believer in analytics. But it seems like some decisions he makes are less about analytics and more about, well, ‘Let’s F—-ing Go!’ Emotions are tricky.”

But many “big believers in analytics” would counter that the process can be sound even if the results are not favorable, the same way a blackjack player will often lose a hand even when following the optimized strategy. The role of analytics in influencing game management is a perennial debate – and to Campbell’s defenders, it seems silly to second-guess the aggressiveness that led the Lions to their first NFC title game appearance since the 1991 season. If Campbell’s gutsy, go-for-it-all mentality helped Detroit get to this point, why change at the season’s biggest moment?

“It’s very easy to criticize the outcome, but I don’t think it takes away from it being the right decision,” said Fox analyst Greg Olsen, who has advocated for using analytics in game management. “Dan Campbell has stayed true to that philosophy from day one. You can’t judge it just because it didn’t work; it’s the reason they got here.”