In the end, Dan Campbell and the Detroit Lions lost the only way they know how: playing aggressively.
Detroit held a 24-7 lead over the San Francisco 49ers at half-time of the NFC Championship Game on Sunday. In less than a quarter, that lead had vanished. Even by the Lions’ standards, this was a special kind of Lion-ing.
How does a 17-point lead evaporate in eight minutes? Miscues, bad luck and ladybugs.
When the inexplicable starts to happen, there’s only so much an NFL head coach can do. You can’t legislate for Josh Reynolds, the team’s reliable receiver, dropping a crucial fourth-down conversion to open a half. Or Jahmyr Gibbs, the team’s star running back, going the wrong way on a hand-off, steaming head-first into a pile of bodies and coughing up a fumble on his own 25-yard line. Or your special teams unit misplaying a perfectly placed punt, knocking the ball into the endzone for a touchback rather than pinning San Francisco at their own goalline.
Most of all, you cannot legislate for 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy launching a ball toward the sporting gods, and being rewarded with the ball bouncing off an opponents’s facemask and into the hands of Brandon Aiyuk for a 51-yard completion.
“Before the game, a ladybug landed on my shoe. And you all know what that means,” Aiyuk said after the game, which the Niners won 34-31, while trying to explain his catch. “That’s all I can say. Other than that, I don’t know.”
Aiyuk’s third-quarter grab was the pivot point of the NFC title game. Up until then, the Lions had played a near-perfect game. Brock Purdy was scattershot, throwing the ball into crowded corridors with hope rather than precision. The Niners defense could not slow anything the Lions threw at them.
Then the catch happened. Then Reynolds dropped another catch on third-down. Then the Lions whiffed on a crucial sack. Before you could refill your Stanley cup, it was a tied game.
Amid the frenzy, amid the game slipping away, Campbell stuck to his philosophy. He put the ball in his quarterback Jared Goff’s hands. He went for it on multiple fourth downs rather than kicking field goals to try to stem the bleeding. When he had the shot to reestablish a three-score lead early in the second half and break the Niners’ momentum, he passed up the to kick a field goal. With a chance to tie the game on fourth-and-three with a field goal from the Niners’ 30-yard line midway through the fourth quarter, Campbell again declined. It was touchdown or nothing, boom or bust. Goff’s pass fell incomplete – the Niners ran up the field for what proved to be the game-clinching score.
There will be plenty of consternation over the coming days over Campbell’s decision-making. Multiple times, he had opportunities to kick field goals to stop the rot. Instead of chasing the game at the end, the Lions could have been even, with a drive to win it all. Instead, they were left trying to dig their way out of a 10-point hole with time running out.
Campbell’s aggression is fun. It breaks with the norms. It’s because of that aggression – because of the fourth-down decision-making; because of his belief in Goff – that the Lions found themselves in the NFC title game to begin with. Still, it’s tough to square Campbell’s decision to kick a field goal at the end of the first half rather than push for a touchdown with his refusal to kick field goals in the second half. Pragmatism struck Campbell when there was a chance to take a three-score lead into the break, only for the swashbuckler to return in the second half.
But Campbell is unapologetically himself. He turned doubters into believers by betting on his players at every turn. You can’t win with Goff, the theory went. You don’t draft running backs in the first round these days. You don’t use prized assets on tight ends and safeties. You can’t let the analytics govern your fourth-down calls all the time. That’s fun in the regular season, but not on championship Sunday. And yet Campbell did all those things.
The Lions bet against orthodoxy all year long, defying any remaining skeptics. For two quarters on Sunday, this was the team Campbell envisioned when he first took the job: A bully ball offense built around a power-running game; explosive plays in the passing game; a bruising defensive line. The Lions crushed the Niners on both sides of the ball in the first half. All told, they rushed for 182 yards and three touchdowns at 6.2 yards a clip. Goff delivered an excellent performance in a losing effort, slinging fire to every portion of the field even as the game began to skid away. A Niners defensive line that’s paid more, collectively, than any other in the league was left chasing ghosts and dust for much of the game.
It’s no wonder, then, that even as the game slipped away, Campbell doubled down.
So they had choked away the lead. So they had made uncharacteristic mistakes. They had a career 76% field goal kicker from between 40 and 49 yards and was just 46.7% from 50-yards or more, and an offense that had been rolling. It made sense for Campbell to go for it rather than kick the field goal. He was going to play the odds; the Lions were going to go down swinging, the way they had all season.
If Campbell kicks even one of those field goals, the Lions might have been booking a trip to Vegas today. But to do so would have been a betrayal of the Fighting Campbells’ ethos.
Campbell is more of a chess player than his kneecap-biting persona. But that stuff does matter. All coaches preach the rah-rah culture stuff; Campbell lives it. In three seasons, he’s turned the Lions from a perennial laughingstock into contenders by building a fearless attitude: fearless toward team-building, play-calling and outside ridicule.
The Lions have never reached a Super Bowl. There was a real sense that this was their year. If not to win it all, to at least be admitted to the dance.
That belief existed only because of Campbell. It was his vision, the culture he built and his unrelenting belief in his players that carried the team six quarters from a championship. For much of the season, his courage was rewarded thanks to his players executing. In the biggest game of them all, those same players melted away.
“I understand the scrutiny I will get,” Campbell said after the game. “But, you know, it just didn’t work out.” Aggressiveness carried the Lions to the brink of the Super Bowl. Sloppy mistakes cost them a shot at ending a 60-year title drought.