Lions coach Campbell stayed true to self, paid the price

Detroit Lions Coach Dan Campbell reaction while discusssing decisions in NFC championship loss to San Francisco 49ers
Detroit Lions Coach Dan Campbell reaction while discusssing decisions in NFC championship loss to San Francisco 49ers

Dan Campbell’s aggressiveness bit his team.

 

The Detroit Lions blew a 17-point halftime lead and missed an opportunity to reach the Super Bowl for the first time in franchise history because their head coach stuck to the same philosophy that helped him turn a perennial loser into a championship contender.

 

Hard to blame Campbell for staying true to himself.

 

On a Sunday filled with superlative performances by Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce in the AFC championship game and a stellar comeback by Brock Purdy and the San Francisco 49ers against the Lions in the NFC title game, Campbell’s fourth-down decisions stole the spotlight.

 

Even another playoff failure by Lamar Jackson won’t compare to the second-guessing Campbell will surely face throughout the offseason.

 

The Kansas City Chiefs are heading back to the Super Bowl to face the 49ers with a chance at a rare repeat in a rematch from four years ago.

 

But much of the talk is focused on Campbell’s gambles.

 

He was aggressive when the Lions went 3-13-1 in his first season in 2021 and he hasn’t wavered in his go-for-broke approach. The Lions have led the NFL with 62 conversions on fourth down in Campbell’s three seasons.

 

However, they couldn’t convert when the stakes were highest.

 

After the 49ers kicked a field goal on the opening drive of the third quarter, the Lions drove into San Francisco’s territory and had a chance to regain their 17-point lead with a 46-yard attempt by Michael Badgley.

 

But Campbell chose to go for a fourth-and-2 from the 28 instead of taking the field goal. Jared Goff’s pass bounced out of Josh Reynolds’ hands, giving the 49ers some hope.

 

“I feel like going for it on fourth down a lot will come back to bite you,” Niners edge rusher Nick Bosa said.

 

Purdy led them on a touchdown drive, tossing a 6-yard scoring pass to Brandon Aiyuk. Lions rookie Jahmyr Gibbs fumbled on the next play and Christian McCaffrey ran in from the 1 to tie it at 24-24.

 

After Jake Moody’s field goal gave San Francisco a 27-24 lead, the Lions faced a fourth-and-3 from the 49ers 30 midway through the fourth quarter. Campbell passed up a shot at a tying field goal and Goff threw an incompletion.

 

Purdy drove the Niners for another TD that gave them a 10-point cushion and Detroit couldn’t recover an onside kick after closing within 34-31.

 

“I just felt really good about us converting and getting our momentum and not letting them play long ball,” Campbell explained. “They were bleeding the clock out, and that’s what they do. And, I wanted to get the upper hand back. It’s easy in hindsight, and I get it. I get that. But, I don’t regret those decisions. And, it’s hard. It’s hard because we didn’t come through. It wasn’t able to work out. ... And, I understand the scrutiny I’ll get. That’s part of the gig, man. But, it just didn’t work out.”

 

Campbell, the 6-foot-5, 265-pound former NFL tight end, can handle the criticism. He knew the Lions were underdogs and hadn’t won a road playoff game since capturing their last NFL championship in 1957. Before beating the Rams and Buccaneers this month, they had only one playoff win in the previous 65 seasons.

 

He wasn’t going to come this close and change his coaching style.

 

“I told those guys, this may have been our only shot,” Campbell said. “Do I think that? No. Do I believe that? No. However, I know how hard it is to get here. I’m well aware. 

And it’s gonna be twice as hard to get back to this point next year than it was this year. That’s the reality. And if we don’t have the same hunger and the same work, which is a whole other thing once we get to the offseason, then we got no shot of getting back here.

 

“I don’t care how much better we get or what we add or what we draft. It’s irrelevant. It’s gonna be tough. Everybody in our division’s gonna be loaded back up. And, you’re not hiding from anybody anymore. Everybody’s gonna want a piece of you. Which is fine, you know. Which is fine. So it’s hard. You wanna make the most of every opportunity. And we had an opportunity and we just couldn’t close it out.”

 

Others will wonder what would’ve happened if Campbell took the points, though field goals of 45-plus yards are no guarantee. He won’t.

 

The Lions went down doing what they did to get here.

 

—Rob Maddi

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