SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Dan Campbell doesn’t look at fourth downs like anyone else in football looks at fourth downs, which makes a lot of people uncomfortable, sometimes irate and, if it doesn’t pan out, arrogantly judgmental.
“I understand the scrutiny,” Campbell said. “It’s part of the gig.”
Twice in Sunday’s NFC championship game, Campbell’s Detroit Lions faced fourth-and-short while within field-goal range. One kick could've regained a 17-point lead. The other could've tied the game.
On neither occasion did Campbell hesitate with his decision. There was no way he wasn’t going for it.
Twice, the San Francisco 49ers stopped the Lions.
Those decisions came in the process of the Lions blowing a big halftime lead. They came in the process of an avalanche wiping out a forever Super Bowl dream. They came amidst Detroit fans daring to believe that this just might, maybe, could be, perhaps was possible, with hope proving to be a dangerous, painful thing.
Soon it was San Francisco 34, Detroit 31, the confetti and the celebration going the other way. Niners fans were booking flights to Vegas; Lions fans were staring on in gut-punch disbelief.
Campbell should have kicked to stem momentum. Campbell should have kicked to tie the game. Campbell should have …
Detroit didn’t lose because of those failed fourth-down conversions, but then again, they sure didn’t help things. Both were aggressive, which is generally celebrated only when it works. Campbell, however, is always aggressive.
It is, he believes, the way the game should be played, perhaps the only way to turn a generational loser such as Detroit into a team three points away from the Super Bowl. More specifically, it's the only way to beat a favored No. 1 seed on the road in a game such as this.
“I just felt really good about us converting,” Campbell said afterward.
The analytics were in his favor, at least slightly, but Campbell wasn’t considering the math. He was considering the game. It’s no secret that Detroit’s offense is a lot stronger than its defense, so trying to win games behind Jared Goff and Co. is always the game plan.
The second fourth down — on which the Lions could've tied the game at 27 with 7:03 remaining — was also about not going into the late stages of the fourth quarter with the Niners able to grind down the clock and take the lead with merely a field goal.
Where others saw a tie as safe and smart, Campbell saw it as an opportunity for a San Francisco offense that Detroit suddenly couldn't stop to play with little pressure and little urgency. He wasn’t wrong about that. If Detroit had converted and scored a touchdown, taken a four-point lead, everything would've shifted.
“Not letting them play long-ball,” Campbell said. “They were bleeding the clock out. That’s what they do. I wanted to get the upper hand back.”
“It would have been really hard to deal with that if they moved the chains on that fourth-and-2,” San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan conceded afterward, not that he was at all surprised. “... That’s how they've done it most of the year. That’s why they are here. They won a lot of games making those decisions.”
Campbell could lament only that the plays didn’t work — not that Detroit tried to make them.
“It's easy in hindsight, and I get it,” he said. “I get that. But I don't regret those decisions. It’s hard. It’s hard because we didn’t come through. We weren’t able to make it work out.”
Still, Detroit’s second-half problems were far greater than those failed conversions.
There were dropped passes. There were missed tackles. There was a failure to down a punt inside the 5. A fumble here, a penalty there. A flea flicker that fooled no one. A Brock Purdy scramble and then another and then another.
“Just a lack of execution,” wide receiver Josh Reynolds said.
Where almost everything went Detroit’s way in the first half, everything went the other way in the second. After Detroit came out on the biggest stage in franchise history throwing haymakers, suddenly it was on its back foot. San Francisco scored on every possession after halftime, excluding when Purdy took a knee as time expired.
Was a field goal or two going to change that?
“Momentum changed,” quarterback Jared Goff said. “They scored, we didn’t convert the fourth down, they scored again, we turned the ball over …”
Maybe one day, deep in Campbell’s coaching career, he’ll come to believe that sometimes you need to take your foot off the gas and kick some field goals for the sake of kicking some field goals. Maybe not.
Regardless, that isn’t how he coaches now, and the way he coaches now is what powered this entire rowdy, rollicking run that saw Detroit go from a 1-6 start to the 2022 season to the brink of everything just 14 months later. Football games, Campbell believes, are not won but seized. Super Bowls don’t just arrive; they are taken. And experienced, star-studded teams such as the Niners are vanquished only by driving a stake through their hearts.
Detroit might lose, but it won’t do so by being passive.
“I love it,” Goff said. “We’ve got to convert … He believes in us. He believes in us. I don’t know what the numbers are, but we had a lot of big-time conversions this year that changed games.”
None of that helped Campbell postgame. The man wears his emotions on his sleeves, and this was despondence.
“It feels like you got your heart ripped out,” he said.
He looked like something worse had somehow befallen him. In a locker room full of quiet whispers and 1,000-yard stares, it was the same. Yet at least this team went out swinging, fourth-down criticism or not.
Maybe no one else understands the mindset, but the mindset isn’t changing in Detroit.