NFL Analysis


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How Much Blame Falls On Dan Campbell For Detroit Lions' Epic Playoff Collapse?

Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell
Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell during the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 28, 2024. (Detroit Free Press)

The Detroit Lions should be getting ready for the Super Bowl. Instead, they will be watching at home after one of the biggest postseason collapses we’ve seen in recent memory.

Holding a 24-7 lead at halftime, the Lions could not close out the NFC Championship Game against the San Francisco 49ers. One of the biggest reasons was coach Dan Campbell's "questionable" decision-making. Was he too aggressive in this big spot? Or did he make some sound decisions with harsh results of bad luck?

Campbell and his staff faced four big decisions on Sunday. Let's run through them all to see where it went wrong.

Decision 1: Kick FG on Fourth-and-Goal From SF 3

Time: 10 Seconds Left In The Second Quarter

The first decision Campbell had to make was a difficult one. Holding a 21-7 lead, the Lions faced a fourth-and-goal from the San Francisco 3-yard line. A short field goal would give Detroit a three-score lead going into halftime, but a touchdown might have ended the game. This decision would have been more difficult if the ball had been on the 1 or even 2-yard line.

Campbell made the right decision to kick the field goal and extend the lead to 17. We’ve seen him be highly aggressive in this spot before, but taking the 21-yard field goal made a lot of sense in real-time and in hindsight. 

One of the reasons this decision made a lot of sense is that when teams usually go for it on fourth-and-goal, there is the added benefit of pining their opponent deep in a disadvantageous spot if the conversion is unsuccessful. That wasn't the case here because the 49ers would have just kneeled the ball out. 

Getting three points was the safe decision. And by all of the analytic models, it was the correct one, as well. There is no doubt that Campbell wanted to be aggressive here, but he correctly decided against it.

Decision 2: Go For It on Fourth-and-2 from SF 28

Time: 7:03 Left In The Third Quarter

After the 49ers scored a field goal on their first drive of the second half, the Lions moved the ball right back down the field after a few nice runs by David Montgomery. Detroit quickly found itself in scoring position again but was stopped on third down after an Amon-Ra St. Brown run. 

This was the most difficult decision Campbell faced all game. Kick a 45-yard field goal to get the lead back to 17, or try to convert and move the ball in the red zone? Campbell opted to stay aggressive, and it should have worked. Jared Goff found Josh Reyonds on a shallow route, but Reynolds dropped the ball. The play call was good. The throw was accurate. But the pass was dropped. 

The fourth-down drop by Reynolds caused a -3.2 loss in expected points for the Lions. But that pales in comparison to other big moments in the game, such as Jahmyr Gibbs’ fumble (-5.5) or the Brandon Aiyuk reception off Kindle Vildor’s facemask (-3.3) that occurred just a few plays later. This was a true 50/50 call by Campbell that just didn’t go his way.

Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff
Detroit Lions quarterback Jared Goff passes against the San Francisco 49ers during the second half of the NFC Championship game on Jan. 28, 2024. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Decision 3: Go For It On Fourth-and-3 From SF 30

Time: 7:32 Left In The Fourth Quarter

After the drops by Reynolds, the 49ers scored 17 points on their next three drives. The offense started to click, and they suddenly took a 27-24 lead. Once again, the Lions had no problem moving the ball down the field and getting into scoring range.

After a seven-yard reception by Amon-Ra St. Brown on third-and-10, Campbell faced another difficult decision. Kick a 47-yard field goal or try to convert a fourth and short? If Campbell opted to pass on a 45-yard field goal earlier, it didn’t make sense to kick a longer one now.

A 47-yard field goal on grass is anything but a sure bet. Michael Badgley is a career 77 percent kicker from 40-49 yards and he made just one such kick all season long. This isn’t Justin Tucker or Harrison Butker we are talking about. This is a journeyman kicker who has played on five teams since 2020. 

That is a tough spot for any kicker, especially when playing outdoors in the NFC Championship Game. It’s also worth noting that Badgley had not attempted a single field goal outdoors all season. Does that guarantee he would have missed the kick? Of course not. But it’s understandable why Campbell decided to trust his offense after it averaged 6.1 yards per play against one of the top defenses in the NFL.

The play call was the more significant mistake by Campbell and the Lions. Detroit tried to run a shallow cross to Jameson Williams, but it wasn't open. Goff scrambled around but was unable to find an open receiver. The Lions turned the ball over on downs, and the 49ers scored a touchdown seven plays later to take a 34-24 lead.

Would kicking the field goal here (assuming he made it) slow down the offensive momentum of the 49ers? It's possible, but the 49ers had moved the ball down the field effortlessly on the previous three drives. Campbell (likely) knew that a field goal wasn't going to help much in the game's final outcome and his team desperately needed a touchdown if they wanted to win. 

Decision 4: Third-and-Goal From SF 1

Time: 1:05 Left In The Fourth Quarter

The most egregious mistake Campbell made wasn’t a fourth-down decision. It was the decision to run the ball on third-and-goal at the 49ers 1-yard line down 34-24. Before that play, the clock was stopped at 1:05 and the Lions possessed all three timeouts. After a throw out of bounds to Sam LaPorta, the Lions were 3 feet away from a touchdown to cut the lead to three.

Instead of dropping back and letting Goff throw again, the Lions decided to hand off to  Montgomery. Not only was he stopped short of the end zone, but the Lions also decided to burn a timeout.

Even though the Lions scored on a pass to Williams on the next play, this was a brutal decision by Campbell and OC Ben Johnson for a variety of reasons. Running the ball shouldn’t be an option at all on third down because time and the timeouts are the No. 1 priority in that situation. And even if you decide to run the ball, you can't burn a timeout in that situation. The Lions needed to run another play on fourth down quickly or kick a field goal to cut the lead to 7.

Instead, the timeout burned by Campbell left them no outs on the next possession. Rather than the Lions potentially getting the ball back down one score, the 49ers recovered the following onside kick and ran out the clock. The decisions to run the ball AND call the timeout cost the Lions a chance to get back into the game. 

You can even argue that the Lions should have kicked a field goal early in the possession. St. Brown caught a pass and went out of bounds at the San Francisco 16-yard line with 1:37 left. Kicking the field goal then would have allowed the Lions to keep all three timeouts and potentially have around a minute left, should they stop the 49ers.

Instead, the worst-case scenario played out. The Lions used too much time and didn't have all three timeouts to stop the clock. While this decision won't get as much national attention as the two failed fourth-down conversions, this was the hardest to understand. And this is the one that should get the most criticism. 

The Lions have nothing to be ashamed of from this season. They were 7-point underdogs in San Francisco and lost to the No. 1 seed. This 49ers team could go down as one of the most talented teams ever. But at the same time, the Lions had them. They could have won this game in several different ways.

Campbell has always defaulted to being aggressive, which got them into this spot in the first place. Are there decisions he wishes that he could take back? Of course, but that's football. And more often than not, his aggressive decision-making will give the Lions the best chance to win, just like it did all season long up to this point.