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The Detroit Lions played the entire 2023 NFL season with an edge, routinely going for the jugular throughout the year.
For Dan Campbell and the Lions, the strategy worked as Detroit won 12 games and reached the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1991.
Head coach Dan Campbell of the Detroit Lions reacts during the third quarter against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium on January 28, 2024 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The Lions went for it on fourth down 34% of the time during the regular season, the highest rate of any team this century, according to ESPN.
It worked until it failed on Sunday afternoon in Santa Clara, CA.
LIONS’ DAN CAMPBELL UNDER FIRE OVER 4TH-DOWN DECISIONS IN LOSS TO 49ERS
The Lions blew a 17-point halftime lead to the San Francisco 49ers, failing to secure the first Super Bowl berth in the history of the organization.
While fans will look back on the 2023 season as a massive success, the “what if” game will continue to play throughout the offseason.
Let’s look at three crucial decisions by Campbell that ultimately contributed to Detroit’s collapse.
4th-and-2 at San Francisco’s 28-yard line, 7:03 remaining 3rd quarter
The first questionable call by Campbell occurred in 49ers territory midway through the third quarter.
Before halftime, Campbell chose to kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the San Francisco four-yard line. The decision gave Detroit a three-possession lead (17 points) heading into halftime.
The 49ers received the opening kickoff of the second half and went nine plays and 50 yards, resulting in a field goal to cut the lead to 14. Detroit’s defense did its job by holding San Francisco to three points.
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Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell walks off the field against the San Francisco 49ers during the first half of the NFC Championship football game at Levi’s Stadium on January 28, 2024 in Santa Clara, California. (Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
The Lions took possession with 11:02 remaining in the third quarter and marched down to the 49ers’ 28-yard line.
Instead of kicking the field goal to possibly regain a 17-point advantage, Campbell chose to go for it on 4th-and-2. Jared Goff’s pass to Josh Reynolds was not hauled in, and San Francisco took possession, cutting the lead to seven 1:41 later.
“We didn’t connect,” Goff said, per the Detroit Free Press. “I’ll throw a better ball next time.”
If Campbell wanted to take a three-possession lead before halftime, forgoing the chance for a touchdown on fourth down, why not make the same decision in the third quarter?
4th-and-3 at San Francisco’s 30-yard line, 7:32 remaining 4th quarter
After the 49ers cut the lead to seven, Lions running back Jamyr Gibbs coughed up the football inside San Francisco territory. The 49ers cashed in on the mistake, tying the game 24-24 late in the third quarter.
The 49ers would take a three-point lead with 9:52 remaining in the fourth quarter.
On the following possession, Detroit drove down to the San Francisco 30-yard line. Campbell faced his second difficult decision on a fourth-and-3. The Lions could attempt a 48-yard field goal to tie the game or go for it on fourth down as they tried to regain the lead.
Campbell took the aggressive approach and Goff’s 4th-down pass fell to the turf.
Jared Goff #16 of the Detroit Lions throws the ball during the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium on January 28, 2024 in Santa Clara, California. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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“It’s easy hindsight and I get it,” Campbell said. “I get that. But I don’t regret those decisions and that’s hard. That’s hard, because they didn’t — 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, that’s part of the gig. But we just — it just didn’t work out.”
Of the two 4th-down attempts, the second attempt is the more defensible of the two.
The Lions defense was getting carved up in the second half, allowing points on each of San Francisco’s first four possessions. Campbell saw an opportunity to take more time off the clock, take the lead and force San Francisco to go the length of the field for a touchdown.
3rd-and-goal at San Francisco’s 1-yard line, 1:05 remaining 4th quarter
Detroit allowed a San Francisco touchdown with 3:02 remaining in the fourth quarter, giving the 49ers a 10-point lead.
Detroit, needing two scores, drove down the field on the following possession before facing a 3rd-and-goal from the one-yard line with 1:05 left on the clock.
With all three timeouts available, Detroit had an opportunity to score and get the ball back if they were able to force a three-and-out.
Instead, the Lions chose to run the football on third down where David Montgomery was stopped for a two-yard loss. With the clock running, Campbell elected to call one of his remaining three timeouts with one minute on the clock. The decision to call a timeout forced Detroit into having no other option besides an onside kick, an incredibly low-percentage play.
David Montgomery #5 of the Detroit Lions runs off of the field during the NFC Championship NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium on January 28, 2024 in Santa Clara, California. ( Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
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The decision to run the ball on third down was wrong, but so was the timeout after the two-yard loss.
“The easy thing to do is to throw it,” Campbell said during Monday’s news conference, according to the NFL Network. “Probably should’ve been the right thing, but for me, I wanted to run it. I thought we would just pop it.
“We had just — 2-minute all the way down the field, throwing the football and they were in a four-down front and I believed we’d walk right in, and we just missed a block. So then, yeah, I’ve got to use a timeout. So, hindsight, throw it four times. But I believed in that moment it was going to be a walk-in run. And it didn’t work out. So, I gambled and lost.”
While the 4th-down attempts can at least be debated, the end-of-game decision by Campbell cannot.