Daring Dan turned into a conservative cowboy Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, and that does not bode well for the Detroit Lions‘ chances of ending what is closing in on a calendar-yearlong streak without a win.
Lions coach Dan Campbell was responsible for two of three worst coaching decisions in the NFL in Week 11, according to the predictive analytics firm EDJ Sports.
With just over 9 minutes left in the fourth quarter and his team trailing, 13-7, Campbell sent kicker Aldrick Rosas out for a 43-yard field goal attempt on fourth-and-1 from the Browns 25-yard line.
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Rosas made the kick, but the decision to play for three points instead of try and convert on fourth-and-short lowered the Lions’ win probability by 5.4%.
Two series later, trailing 13-10 with 2:36 on the clock, Campbell decided to punt on fourth-and-9 from his own 41.
Jack Fox’s punt rolled into the end zone, the Browns started their next series at the 20 and ran out the rest of the clock.
Campbell, whose decision to punt lowered the Lions’ win chance by 7.6%, said Sunday he wrestled with kicking the field goal early in the fourth quarter but was comfortable punting late in the game.
“The fourth-and-1 was tough,” he said. “The fourth-and-9 wasn’t, just because I wanted to be smart with what we were doing. And your defense is playing like that, and you want to be mindful of making sure that you’re being smart with your quarterback but yet still having a chance to win, I just felt like it was the right thing to do. I did. I thought we’d get that ball back.”
While perhaps a reasonable assumption with three timeouts left and his defense playing well — the Browns had three first-half scoring opportunities, and six first downs on their other seven possessions at that point in the game — Campbell’s ultra-conservative approach Sunday clashes with the I-trust-my-guys tact he has taken most of the season.
From going for three fourth-and-shorts in an opening game loss to the San Francisco 49ers, to dialing up two fake punts and a surprise onside kick against the Los Angeles Rams, to last week’s I’d-rather-lose-than-tie timeout usage against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Campbell’s approach has been a breath of fresh of air in a league where coaches are typically more consumed with trying not to do the wrong thing than doing what’s right.
But Campbell’s cautious decision-making Sunday went beyond those two plays and bled into other areas of the game.
Tim Boyle, making his first career start, attempted four passes that traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. Boyle went 0 for 4 on those throws with an interception, a sign that perhaps Campbell was right to keep his play calling conservative (in his second game assuming those duties).
But the lack of anything remotely resembling a vertical passing attack hindered the Lions on Sunday, as it has all season.
Boyle has a strong arm and a gunslinger’s mentality. He was erratic in his first start and finished an unimpressive 15 of 23 for 77 yards. But it’s tough living in the NFL when defenses constantly crowd the line of scrimmage and have come to expect third-down draw plays because your offense is squeamish about throwing downfield.
“They will run it from third-and-2 or third-and-12,” Browns defensive end Myles Garrett said. “Them rushing on third-and-14 did not surprise us at all.”
As timid as Campbell was in his play calling Sunday, some of that was understandable.
Boyle had attempted four NFL passes entering the game, none since 2019. He was returning from a 10-week absence with a broken thumb. And the Lions were playing on a rainy day, in a hostile environment, against one of the most ferocious pass rushes in the NFL.
Campbell never was going to unload his playbook, nor should he have. But he also failed to do enough to establish the Lions only real strength.
D’Andre Swift is the Lions’ best offensive skill player, by a wide margin. And the organization has invested heavily in what has been a pretty good offensive line.
And yet on a day that seemed conducive to running the football, especially given the constraints of the Lions’ offense, he had 14 carries, 17 total touches and was not on the field for two of the Lions’ final four offensive plays.
Swift, who walked gingerly off the field at one point in the fourth quarter, scored on a 57-yard run on his 10th touch of the game, which amazingly came with 2:04 left in the third quarter. But his usage Sunday — and for much of the season, really — was incongruous with the Lions’ offensive game plan.
If the Lions don’t trust Boyle (or Goff) to push the ball downfield, then they need to rely even more heavily on Swift. And if they don’t want to overuse Swift, then they must get more creative with their pass game.
Too often this season, the Lions have treated Swift like a precious heirloom, breaking him out only on special occasions. He had eight carries against the Green Bay Packers in September, eight against the Chicago Bears in October and has topped 14 rushes in a game once all season.
Swift was battling a groin injury in training camp that cost him practice time, and the Lions showed proper restraint easing him into game action. There was no reason to risk overuse in September, when the season was awash with possibilities.
But 10 games into the year, the Lions are desperate for a win and the kid gloves need to come off.
Asked about his workload Sunday and whether he needs more touches, Swift, who has 266 yards rushing the past two games, second-most in the NFL behind the Indianapolis Colts’ Jonathan Taylor, said, “That’s not up to me.”
“I can’t do nothing but do my job,” he said. “Do my job when I’m called on.”
The Lions (0-9-1) are down to their final seven chances to get a win this season, and Thursday’s game against the Chicago Bears (3-7) is one of the few realistic opportunities they have left.
If Goff is healthy, he should start at quarterback, as Campbell said he would.
If Swift is healthy, he should factor into the offense early and often. He gives the Lions their best chance to win.
And when Campbell is building his game plan and making decisions on the sideline, he should continue to trust his players, especially the ones who’ve given him reason to so far.