Dan Campbell has caught plenty of flack in the 11 months since he was hired as Detroit Lions coach.
From his introductory news conference to some of his late-game and fourth-down decision making, Campbell has felt the hot glare of a football world that expects perfection from its participants and rarely settles for anything less.
Campbell got his first win as Lions coach Sunday, when Jared Goff threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown as time expired to beat the Minnesota Vikings.
That victory eased a burden off a franchise tumbling towards another winless season, and it gave Campbell a brief reprieve from the critics clawing for his throat.
There was genuine jubilation on the sideline after the score and in the locker room following the game, and I thought it was especially telling to see what happened immediately after St. Brown secured his catch for the win.
Goff, who has been under more fire than Campbell in his first season in Detroit, made a beeline for the sideline and bear-hugged his coach.
Campbell reciprocated, and while their embrace lasted only a few seconds, it offered great insight into the relationship Campbell has with his players and Goff in particular.
“Pretty cathartic feeling,” Goff said. “We’ve been close to some of these and to get it in a situation like that, on the last play of the game, it’s special, man, and I know the work that he’s put in and I know how much blood, sweat and tears goes in it for him, and how important it is. And the scratching and clawing we’ve been doing every week since the first week and the things we’ve done wrong and the things we’ve fixed and just being able to make sure he knew that we love him and are behind him.”
For years, players have honored coaches with Gatorade showers after big wins, and occasionally a defensive coordinator gets hoisted on his players’ shoulders after beating his old team.
But Goff’s celebration Sunday seemed more spontaneous than those rigged acts of revelry, and for that reason it was hard to ignore.
Campbell was all-in on the Lions’ decision to acquire Goff in the Matthew Stafford trade in January, having seen firsthand what Goff could do when the two battled for NFC supremacy with the New Orleans Saints and Los Angeles Rams in recent years.
Even as Goff struggled this season, and Campbell acknowledged publicly his quarterback’s shortcomings, Campbell remained steadfastly in Goff’s corner and was up front about what he needed to do better behind closed doors.
Candor and honesty can go a long way in a locker room, and in this case they seem to have strengthened the coach-quarterback bond.
Campbell, who was presented a game ball in the locker room then doused with water by his players, took over offensive play calling last month, reportedly due in part to a rift Goff had with offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. In what amounted to their second full game together Sunday — an oblique injury limited Goff and impacted Campbell’s play calling in Week 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers — the offense had perhaps its best performance of the year.
Goff committed two fourth quarter turnovers, but even before his late-game heroics, he showed more willingness to trust the play calls, his arm and his teammates.
Goff threw three passes behind the line of scrimmage Sunday, after averaging more than 7 a game in his first 10 starts. He ripped balls into tight coverage windows on completions to T.J. Hockenson and Brock Wright, and didn’t flinch when he got burned on his interception throwing into double coverage again.
“It’s just confidence in the play and confidence in what we’re looking at,” Goff explained after the game. “I felt great on all those throws and we repped them and we’d done it for a few weeks, and get it on field and get the look for it, and I’m confident in T.J., I’m confidence in Brock. You step on it, you make the throw, that’s all there is to it. It’s really not any magic spell or something, it’s just being confident in what we’re doing and stepping through stuff.”
It’s possible Sunday’s game was the start of something for a Lions team that has found offense tough to come by all year. It’s just as possible the performance was a one-off against a middling team missing four starters in back seven and its two best pass rushers.
Campbell, though, clearly has the backing of his players, and at 0-10-1, there is something to be said about that.
Gambling Dan is back
For everyone critical of Campbell’s decision to try and convert a fourth-and-1 deep in his own territory with 4:08 to play, the analytics strongly support the move, with Ben Baldwin’s fourth down bot saying the decision increased the Lions’ win chance 4.5 percentage points.
I thought going for it was the right thing to do. The Lions hadn’t stopped the Vikings at all in the second half (save for one possession when Minnesota committed back-to-back penalties) and I generally support aggressive play at all stages of a game.
After criticizing Campbell for being too conservative in recent weeks, I certainly wasn’t going to dock him in my postgame grades for taking a more bold approach while trying to get his first win. I’m more lukewarm about Campbell’s timeout usage late in the first half, which enabled to Vikings to extend a drive that fortunately for the Lions ended on downs. But my philosophy, beyond the numbers, is that it’s almost always better to keep the ball in your hands when the game is on the line.
As for the play call, that’s certainly more debatable, but the Lions failed on a fourth-and-1 sneak earlier in the game and the play was designed for a throw to Jamaal Williams in the flat. The Vikings covered Williams well, and Goff held onto the ball in an effort to make a play downfield. He lost a fumble on the play, but Minnesota essentially started its next possession where it would have with an incomplete pass.
“If we would have ran a different play maybe it would have worked,” Goff said. “Or if we would have the look for it maybe it would have worked, but it didn’t work out and again, I think if that would have killed us, you guys would be killing him right now and rightfully so. But again, the sign of a good team (is) a team that can overcome those type of mistakes by whoever. It’s the way that a lot of teams win in this league and the way most teams win in this league is by overcoming mistakes.”
Feeling a draft
Don’t expect the Lions to pack it in and play for the No. 1 pick now that they’re in the win column. Sunday’s feeling was too good to ignore, and I don’t know that there’s much difference between picking first or second this year anyway.
If you’re keeping track at home, there are three teams still in the mix for the first pick:
• The Lions (1-10-1) have games remaining at the Denver Broncos, home against the Arizona Cardinals, at the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks, and home against the Green Bay Packers.
• The Jacksonville Jaguars (2-10) play at the Tennessee Titans, home against the Houston Texans, at the New York Jets and New England Patriots, and home against the Indianapolis Colts.
• The Texans (2-10) play home against the Seahawks, at Jacksonville, home against the Los Angeles Chargers, at the San Francisco 49ers and home against the Titans.
Barring a miracle hot streak by the Lions to finish the season, the winner of the Texans-Jaguars game Dec. 19 will be out of the No. 1 overall mix. The Lions can lock up the choice by losing out, which doesn’t seem as likely as it did a couple weeks ago, but would fall to second if they and either the Texans or Jaguars finished with two wins.
Looking at the Lions’ final five games, they deserve to be underdogs in all, though three fall into the “winnable” category.
The Broncos are eight-point favorites this week. They have a strong defense, but are challenged offensively, which gives the Lions a chance. A win against the Cardinals seems highly unlikely given they have the best record in the NFL and an MVP-candidate quarterback in Kyler Murrary. Neither the Falcons nor Seahawks are very good, but both games are on the road against veteran quarterbacks. Green Bay in Week 17 is another unlikely spot for a win, though there is a small chance the Packers will be resting their starters that day with playoff seeding locked up.
Closer than you think
Four of the Lions’ 12 games this season have been decided by a score on the final play of regulation. That’s a pretty astounding number, but I’m not sure how much I buy into the whole “learning to win” spiel Campbell and his coaches have espoused in recent weeks.
Yes, there is something to be said about experience, and how playing in big games and close games prepares you for similar situations in the future. But I’d venture to say a quarter of this year’s roster (if not more) won’t be around next season, so who really stands to benefit from the experience?
The Lions had their hearts broken on late field goals by the Baltimore Ravens in Week 3 and Vikings in Week 5, and they were crushed again last week when they couldn’t get a stop against the Chicago Bears.
They won Sunday because they prepared for the moment, not because they had been in a similar situation and lost before.
One thing that was important about Sunday’s win was that the Lions found a way to get a victory while not playing their best game. They were outgained, 426 yards to 372 yards. They lost the turnover battle (two to one). And they failed to convert a third down until their final drive, going 2 for 11 for the game.
“I think that’s what this league’s about a little bit,” Campbell said. “You’re striving for perfection knowing you’ll never get there, but ultimately it’s got to be about, you got to be one play better than your opponent. And I think it does say something to our guys that they just hung in there, they continue to work and to be able to go down — and look, here’s one of the things I’m most proud of is that we finally finished a game with a ball in our hand offensively.
“We’ve put our defense out there so many times to hold up and they’ve stood their ground, and offensively, you want to be able to end these games, whether it’s kneeling it down or you’re finishing it with the ball in your hands. So that was good, and thera gain, we just made one more play than they did.