INGLEWOOD, Calif. — So last week was an aberration. Had to be. The weight of too many gut-punch losses and, frankly, too many losses.
And when the game got away and the talented and hungry young Cincinnati Bengals began to pull away, well … it was hard to blame the Detroit Lions for losing focus.
Not that Dan Campbell wanted to hear it. He was angry. And swore he’d make sure his team didn’t lose their edge again.
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Give him credit. Give the Lions credit, too. Because seven games into this season it’s safe to say the blowout loss to the Bengals was a one-off.
Yeah, you could chalk up the Lions’ gutty effort this Sunday at SoFI Stadium — a 28-19 loss to remain winless — to the quarterback manning the opposite sideline. To revenge or whatever you want to call it.
That would be fair — in theory — or perhaps in some dusty room where clichés are stuffed onto 16mm reels.
But in reality?
Here, by LAX airport, where thousands of Lions fans damn near took over?
It’s a disservice to Julian Okwara and T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift and all the other Lions who made plays to give Matthew Stafford credit for a now 0-7 team playing like this.
Of course, they wanted to beat him. Of course, they wanted to give their new quarterback, Jared Goff, a win over his old team and, especially, his old coach, Sean McVay, who no longer wanted Goff. Of course, they are tired of losing and the bubbling talk of 0-17 and the balls bouncing off crossbars and long fourth-down conversions to set up miracle field goals and sickening turnovers.
Yeah, especially those turnovers. Which is just a euphemism for mistakes, as the Lions, bless their hearts, keep finding ways to make them at the worst possible moment.
This time it was Goff’s interception near the goal line when the Lions had the chance to take the lead with just over four minutes left in the game.
Not to excuse Goff’s throw, off his back foot, into a double team (he was trying to hit Hockenson). No, he can’t keep turning the ball over.
But you know what?
His pick would not have hurt as much if his coach hadn’t made an even bigger mistake earlier in the half. At some point, Campbell has got to learn that at some point you’ve … got … to … take … the … points.
At some point you gotta kick the field goal and take the lead and send your defense on the field to protect something instead of trying to prevent it.
If Campbell had called for the field goal instead of going for it on fourth-and-short in the third quarter, his team would’ve had a chance to win the game on its last drive instead of trailing by nine.
Would they have finished it off?
That’s not the point, though. At some point, the Lions coach can’t keep giving away points. The margin for error is too narrow. And while his aggressiveness is endearing — and always compelling — compelling doesn’t win games.
And the Lions need to win a game.
Campbell knows that, obviously. Which is why he called for an onside kick after the Lions opened the game with a touchdown — (a 63-yard screen pass to Swift). And why he called for a fake punt on that same drive. And why he later called for a second fake punt.
All three gambles worked. The Rams weren’t expecting any of them, which is the point.
On fourth-and-short, though, they knew what was coming. This needs to stop. It’s one thing to be aggressive, it’s another to be reckless, especially when your defense is playing well enough to keep things interesting.
Look, it’s a rebuild. It’s early. The more the Lions lose, the better their draft pick. That’s all fine. But the coach can’t keep getting in the way, especially this coach, who has done so much to keep this team engaged.
As he did again this past week.
Yes, playing against Stafford probably helped. It’s only natural. But the Lions are clearly playing for something more than beating a former teammate.
That was evident Sunday from the start … and evident in the end. They came up short again. Done in by a talent difference and a couple unlucky breaks.
They can’t make that luck worse. There are moments a team should go for it and moments when it shouldn’t. Dan Campbell is still figuring which are which.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.