The Detroit Lions enjoyed a historic season in 2023. After all, they made it back to the playoffs, hosted and won two playoff games, and made it to the NFC Championship for the first time in more than three decades. It was the realization of the process that head coach Dan Campbell brought to the Motor City three years ago when he was hired.
However, despite all the success, plenty of second-guessing took place following the Lions’ 34-31 loss in the NFC Championship game to the San Francisco 49ers. Sure, Detroit was a big underdog going in. However, they held a 24-7 lead at halftime and seemed poised to be heading to the Super Bowl.
Along the way, Campbell made some aggressive decisions that were the subject of controversy. One was a 4th and 2 from the 49ers’ 28 yard line while being up by 14 points in the middle of the 3rd quarter. The Lions went for it and did not succeed. The other call was a 4th and 3 from the 49ers’ 30 yard line while trailing by three midway through the 4th quarter. Again they went and again were turned away.
In the end, the Lions fell short in these situations and on the scoreboard, and so of course the decisions made by Campbell were put under the microscope.
Plenty were quick to point out that the approach from Campbell has always been aggressiveness, and that the fearless way of thinking is plenty of the reason they had gotten to that point. The numbers on 4th down were good for Detroit all season, but I wanted to try to find a similar set of decisions to see how Campbell had handled them and how things turned out.
In my search for comparable calls, I did not find nearly as many instances as I expected. Games against the Saints and Ravens saw unique 4th down opportunities, but the distances to gain were double what the decisions were in the NFC Championship. After plenty of searching, I found my answer: The Seattle game.
The Lions were hosting the Seahawks way back in week two of the season on September 17th. Campbell’s first surprising 4th down call did not take long, as it was in a 7-7 game in the 1st quarter. Detroit had 4th and 4 from the Seahawks’ 31 yard line, very similar to the two calls we have been referencing. They went for it and did not get it, passing up on a 48-yard field goal attempt.
Fast-forward to the middle of the third quarter, with the game tied 14-14. The Lions have 4th and 3 from the Seattle 11. Most coaches probably take the easy chip shot for a three-point lead. Not Dan Campbell. The Lions went for it, converted, and scored a touchdown on the drive to go up 21-14.
In the middle of the fourth quarter, there was yet another big decision. Detroit led 21-17 and had a 4th and 2 from their own 45 yard line. They were not even across midfield and could have punted to protect the lead. Instead, they went for it, did not get it, and the Seahawks used the short field to score and take the lead.
That game would eventually go to overtime and the Lions would fall. What is the point of this deep dive? Campbell not only has made decisions like this before, but he has made them and seen them fail. The 4th down decision in their own territory arguably cost them that Seahawks game. And what did he do when given another chance? He doubled down.
Again, the Lions were successful with that mentality. They won 12 games and made the NFC Championship. Were his decisions correct? I guess that depends on the criteria you evaluate them on. But if he is given another chance to make those calls, I am still immensely confident that he will go for them again and again and again.
Dawson Eiserloh is the co-host of “RP3, D-Loh & Meche” which is broadcast weekdays (11-1) on ESPN 103.7 Lafayette and 104.1 Lake Charles — Southwest Louisiana’s Sports Station.