Forget another Detroit Lions loss, Dan Campbell is losing the benefit of the doubt

Detroit Free Press

At some point this has to stop, right? Not the losing — though that would be nice, too — but the mental mistakes and questionable decisions and oddly conservative play-calling.

You know, when Dan Campbell calls a run up the middle on second-and-long and second-and-long and third-and-longer. But then that’s not the half of it. We’ve seen this lately, most recently a week ago in Cleveland, and the week before that in Pittsburgh.

On some level it’s understandable, the Detroit Lions can’t throw and why bother anyway?

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“Tough to find calls for third-and-32 or whatever,” said Campbell.

True. But what about second-and-25? Is a draw play really the best he can do?

It’s odd that this same coach kept plunging forward early in the season, going for it on fourth down and calling fake punts and fake field goals and even onside kicks. That was fun, at least. And while you might have quibbled with his aggressiveness, he was trying to find an edge with an undermanned team.

And yet, forget about the philosophy of turtling on plays where a pass completion is unlikely. And forget about settling for a punt when the down and distance become unfavorable.

For as frustrating as that may be for fans and was again Thursday in a bitter — but hardly surprising — 16-14 loss to the Chicago Bears, it’s not the story.

It can’t be.

Not after Campbell called consecutive timeouts and cost his defense 5 yards when it still had a chance to force a field goal with enough time to score. That the Lions probably wouldn’t have completed a late comeback is beside the point.

Mistakes are one thing, but taking a penalty out of fear of giving up a touchdown when, at worst, you’d have the ball with close to a couple of minutes and two timeouts?

Campbell said his defense changed the play at the line of scrimmage but only half the team got the call.

“So the first thing in my head is, ‘Well, we’ve got a blown coverage and they’re about to score a touchdown,’ so I do it, which you can’t do and now it’s a penalty,” he said. “But I know that if he threw it out in a flat it was about to be a touchdown. Can’t do it.”

No, what you can’t do is risk not seeing the ball again while the opponent bleeds the clock and lines up for a chip-shot field goal as time expires.

Which is what Campbell did when he called the timeout and gave the Bears 5 yards, turning a third-and-9 inside the red zone into a third-and-4, giving Andy Dalton, the Bears’ backup quarterback, a much easier pickup, which is what he did when he found Damiere Byrd on a 4-yard slant — or exactly the yardage needed for a first down.

Imagine that?

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From there, Dalton took three knees on three snaps and the Bears ran the clock down to a few seconds and Cairo Santos kicked a field goal as time expired for another Lions loss. Where have you seen that before?

Who else gives up an eight-minute drive to lose the game? Who else aids that drive by calling consecutive timeouts?

Look, Campbell is easy to cheer for and easier to play for and if you watch his team every Sunday you see a group of players that competes in a way that makes it hard to guess their record. He deserves credit for that.

He also deserves a break for the lack of talent on the roster and the injuries — the Lions lost D’Andre Swift and Penei Sewell during the game. But there is plenty he can control that he is not.

The penalty that helped Chicago get the first down is the most egregious.

How about all the regular penalties that led to some of those third-and-forevers?

At some point, Campbell has to figure out how to get his guys to keep from jumping at the line of scrimmage. Nearly every one on the line had a false start.

Most of them had holding penalties, too, and while you can argue holding calls come when a lineman gets beat, there is a mental part of this as well.

“I just already know without looking that it’s going to be probably sloppy fundamentals,” said Campbell. “We didn’t step where we should have stepped, you’re a little tired, you’re a little whatever, so are they. You lag behind and then you get caught holding.”

Again, mistakes happen, but it’s a pattern, and while talent deficits show up in penalties, Campbell understands the sloppiness and lack of attention to detail is ultimately on him.

It’s a matter of focus, like when trying to down a punt, as KhaDarel Hodge was trying to do in the second half.

Yet Hodge, who was down inside the 10 waiting for it to land, lost sight of the ball and turned away as it bounced, then turned the other way, missing the ball as it bounded into the end zone for a touchback. Hodge stood still for a moment, shoulders slumped, before a few teammates came over to offer encouragement.

He was booed, understandably so.

But if you watched him slowly walk back to the sideline, take a seat and hang his head again, you’d see a competitor booing himself, too.

Hodge and everyone else on the roster know what is happening.

Zero wins?

Ten losses (and a tie)?

National television and social media around the country blowing up because the Lions ruined Thanksgiving? Well, that’s an overstatement, but also how so many NFL fans feel.

It’s one thing to watch a plucky team find ways to stay in games and compete. It’s another to watch a coach make the mistake that cost his team its first victory. Campbell swears he understands the frustration, both with communication errors and penalties and even the conservative play-calling.

“We all want to win,” he said. “We’re playing to win, those guys, you can see that out there. And I know it’s hard to see from afar because everyone wants the wins and the losses, and all of us do. But these guys are like laying it on the line and giving it everything they’ve got right now. It’s just a matter of we have to learn how to win.”

Thanksgiving offered another good opportunity. The Bears had lost five straight before Thursday.

And when they missed a field goal in the third quarter after a holding call pushed them back you figured maybe, possibly, finally, it was the Lions time to get a win, especially when Jared Goff found T.J. Hockenson near the pylon on the next possession, giving the Lions a 14-13 lead.

Goff threw two touchdown passes. His first, a 39-yarder to Josh Reynolds, was his best throw of the year. Watching him move the offense a little as the defense — led by a flinty group of youngsters — kept the Bears (mostly) in check, well, the win seemed more than possible.

And yet?

Here we are, wondering not just if the Lions will go winless again, but beginning to wonder how much time Campbell will need to learn on the job.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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