Three weeks ago, Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell made a bold decision to take over play calling of the team’s offense. Up to that point, Detroit’s offense had really struggled, with the run game stagnant and the pass game incapable of throwing the ball more than 5 yards down the field.
Campbell entered 2021 with a free pass. Just about everyone understood this was a rebuild of the highest degree, and with a roster devoid of top-tier talent, it was going to be a rough season. But when Campbell assumed more duties and made the drastic (desperate?) move to become a first-time play-caller in the middle of the season, he suddenly opened himself up to more criticism.
It’s safe to say this move has not worked thus far. The Lions have held opponents to 16, 13 and 16 points in the last three weeks. For just about every team in the NFL, that’s enough to get at least one win in those games. Not the Lions, though. Campbell has turned the Lions into somehow an even more conservative offense, playing with a focus on not blowing the game rather than taking it to the opponent. Here’s a quote after Thursday’s loss that is as telling as it is frustrating.
“You think I should have thrown more? I saw you. Throw deeper? I guess I—and I’m not judging what you’re saying—I get it. I get there can be some frustration. But it’s also I’m mindful of how do you keep yourself in this game, continue to move the football. There were so many things that we did early in this year to where disaster happens. It’s sack fumble, it’s all this because we’re trying to be a little more aggressive.”
The fears of the past are haunting Campbell, and instead of trying to fix the deep passing game, he’s playing to “keep yourself in the game.” He looks at Thursday’s game and he sees Jared Goff’s sack fumble, not the deep touchdown to Josh Reynolds that gave the team half of their offensive output.
And then, of course, there’s the end of the game fiasco. The defense, once again, found themselves in another miscommunication at a key point in the game, and Campbell’s response was to take a devastating penalty by calling back-to-back penalties. The Bears would seal the game on the very next play.
It’s all maddening, especially after Campbell took his conservatism to an extreme by refusing to go for it on fourth-and-1 and fourth-and-9 with the game on the line. But calls for Campbell’s head are out of line and extremely premature.
Sure, Campbell’s game management has been a very big concern over the past three weeks. No one is denying that. But you could make the argument all of these decisions were rooted by having a poor roster. He doesn’t trust his offense, because his offense is simply not executing well. He’s punting on fourth down because he trusts his defense more than his offense right now.
Campbell has basically admitted as such with common phrases like “we’re not good enough to overcome mistakes” or “we have to play a perfect game.” That’s coachspeak for “our roster sucks.” One turnover, one penalty, one blown coverage could be the end of the game, and that’s why he’s simply just trying to stay in this thing as long as possible. I don’t like it, but I certainly get it.
So before we start bringing out our pitchforks, let’s actually give Campbell a chance to rebuild. If Campbell still makes poor decisions in critical moments when he actually has a roster he can trust, then we can start talking pink slips. Until then, let’s hope Campbell is learning from these early mistakes.
I talk about all of this and more in my post-game mini-podcast, which you can listen to below.