Chicago — Dan Campbell said he’d do it again, he didn’t regret the fourth-down gambles, he trusts his players to convert. It’s an admirable stance, to stand by bold convictions.
But this is the evolution of a young coach, and Campbell is learning there’s a fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness. He has straddled the line, and in a 24-14 loss to the Bears on Sunday, he fell over it. Five times the Lions drove inside the Bears’ 10-yard line and only once did they score points.
An old football axiom says you get beat by settling for field goals. An older, less-recited axiom says you get beat if you come up empty 80% of the time inside the 10. I agree you don’t kick field goals against a high-powered opponent, but the Bears were coming off one of the worst offensive outputs in NFL history last week.
So here it was, the Lions were down 24-14 after trailing 21-0 and had a chance to pull within a score with 4:15 remaining. Jared Goff hit Amon-Ra St. Brown on a 9-yard pass to set up fourth-and-1 from Chicago’s 8. A field goal makes it a one-touchdown difference. An incompletion essentially ends it. The Lions scrambled to run a play, didn’t call a timeout, and Goff’s hurried pass eluded St. Brown and that was it.
The Lions have succumbed meekly for years, so in that sense, this is different, because they again went down battling. But it’s a tired narrative when you’re 0-4, one of two winless teams (Jacksonville is the other). They didn’t necessarily get beat by Bears rookie Justin Fields, who was much better in his second start but only threw for 209 yards. They got beat by their own decisions, and indecisions.
“They played smarter than we did,” Campbell said. “I don’t regret any (of the fourth-down calls), but the last one, I wish we would’ve huddled up, and that’s on me. … Give them a play call that’s a little more fourth down-oriented. On my end, I could’ve done a better job.”
Campbell is a good communicator, and his players appreciate it. He wanted to make it clear he was putting his faith in Goff, yet by trusting his offense and eschewing field goals, he isn’t exactly trusting his defense. (OK, can’t really blame him).
Early in the second quarter, the Lions trailed 14-0 and faced a fourth down at Chicago’s 5. No hesitation by Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, and Goff’s pass was tipped at the line and fell incomplete. This isn’t second-guessing — a field goal looked like the obvious move — but Campbell does enjoy his gambles.
“My gut tells me to go for it,” he said. “You get down there that tight, you get seven out of it, and if it doesn’t work out, you got them pinned back. In a game like that, they get up a couple scores, just kicking field goals may not be the game.”
Let’s be clear here — I’m a big fan of guts and going for it in unorthodox situations. But the Lions moved the ball decently much of the game and have been relatively effective in the red zone. This wasn’t going to be a shootout. They converted only four of 11 third downs, and against a nasty Bears defense, it gets tighter on fourth downs.
The Lions drove three other times inside Chicago’s 10. On their first possession, a communication gaffe led to a mistimed snap that bounced off Goff and was recovered by the Bears. To add to the agony, center Frank Ragnow left with an injured toe and didn’t return.
On third-and-goal from the 3 in the second quarter, Goff was strip-sacked by Robert Quinn and the fumble was recovered by Khalil Mack. Finally in the third quarter, Goff hit Kalif Raymond for one of his two touchdowns, a 4-yard strike that made it 21-7.
Goff hung tough against a strong Bears defense. He was sacked four times and lost two fumbles but didn’t throw an interception. He finished 24-for-38 for 299 yards, and again was better late than early. The Lions’ offense is still looking for an identity, and at times it’s the running game with Jamaal Williams. D’Andre Swift caught four passes out of the backfield and tight end T.J. Hockenson was more involved, but it seems like the Lions start a game down two touchdowns because of their battered defense.
It doesn’t get easier now that Romeo Okwara suffered an apparent serous Achilles injury, and the list of wounded keeps growing. Chicago’s David Montgomery ran for 106 yards, while Fields pumped some life into the Bears (2-2).
In some ways, this hit the Lions harder than last week’s 19-17 crusher against the Ravens, a game they would have won if not for an NFL-record 66-yard field goal. They didn’t give themselves a chance to win this one with critical turnovers and occasional disarray.
Goff was particularly agitated, partly with himself for missed throws, and even though the circumstances aren’t ideal, he’s trying to take charge.
“You just get to the point where there’s no longer, ‘Oh we did these things good,’” Goff said. “Well, we still lost. Maybe a pissed-off team will execute a little bit better, and that’s me included. … It’s kind of been a record player for me every week, but trust me when I say we’re on our way. I believe in these guys.”
Campbell detected the anger in the dressing room afterward and liked it. Aggressive talk and play-calling often are the norm when a team isn’t expected to win. Just go for it, right? For the most part, sure.
But at some point, the Lions need refinement, such as cooler heads on fourth-and-1, such as accepting points when they’re available.
“We gotta play a lot more crisp than we are,” Campbell said. “We get into the fire and the fundamentals start falling apart a little bit. … We gotta do a better job. I have to do a better job. Because if we don’t, then it makes you think we’re being too aggressive, we need to just take field goals and punt. Play it safe.”
He chomped on the words like he could barely stand to say them. No, the Lions won’t win just by playing it safe. Aggressiveness is rewarded handsomely, and also punished severely. More experienced and talented teams can pull it off better than young groups.
That’s the balance Campbell has to weigh, and so does Goff. He held the ball too long at times, and he said it was his fault on Ragnow’s snap that went awry. He also looked scattered on the final fourth-down pass.
“You always want the coach to have confidence in you,” Goff said. “But damn right, we better start making them.”
They’re still looking for a place to start and a path to improvement. Taking risks is one way. So is running the ball. So is expecting sound, smart decisions from the coach and quarterback. The truth is, taking high-stakes chances isn’t the only way to give yourself a chance.