Wojo: Campbell ‘hates’ his gamble gaffe and Lions lose a crusher

Detroit News

Minneapolis – He gambled all game, as he tends to do, as he needs to do. And then, at the bitter, crushing end, he fell one gamble short.

It’s the Art of the Dan Campbell Gamble, and he still hasn’t mastered it. As painful as the latest loss was, he can’t abandon it either. The Lions led most of the way, converting fourth downs to maintain possessions and build a 10-point margin midway through the fourth quarter. And then Campbell chose poorly, kicker Austin Seibert struck the ball poorly, and the Vikings snatched a 28-24 victory at U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday.

Campbell immediately owned up to it afterward. It wasn’t an apology because an apology wasn’t necessary. It was a deep, gnawing regret. Leading 24-21, he opted to attempt a 54-yard field goal with 1:14 left instead of going for it on fourth-and-four from Minnesota’s 36. The field goal – it would’ve been Seibert’s career long − only would’ve made it a six-point lead, and the Vikings have ample firepower to wipe that out. The kick missed badly and the Vikings needed all of 25 seconds to drive for the winning score, a 28-yard touchdown pass from Kirk Cousins to K.J. Osborn.

“As far as me, I frickin’ regret my decision there at the end,” Campbell said. “Should have gone for it on fourth down. I told the team that. …. It felt like, you know what, let’s kick a field goal. We go up by six and force them to score a touchdown for the win. They had no timeouts. Should have gone for it.”

Yep, he absolutely should have, just as he went for it several times earlier, putting the Lions in position to seize command. A 14-0 early lead? Squandered. A 24-14 lead in the fourth quarter? Squandered. A chance for a road win against a division rival that would’ve lit Lions’ fans into a frenzy? Squandered.

Jared Goff played one of his strongest, gutsiest games as a Lion, and he and teammates admitted they were surprised they didn’t go for it at the end. Goff even second-guessed himself for not campaigning harder for it.

“(Campbell) ultimately has the say and I’m not going to question him,” Goff said. “I wish I’d have gone over there and demanded to stay on the field. I guarantee he would have let us. We all have our regrets in some way, shape, or form. Ultimately, we had two chances as an offense to finish that game.”

Taking risks

This is the conundrum for the Lions (1-2) and their relatively young head coach. It’s not an unfixable issue either. It’s an evolvable issue. It’s Campbell’s nature, and also the reality of the roster, that winning by conventional means will be difficult. It shouldn’t stay difficult going forward, as the Lions played well against their old nemesis and almost captured their first road victory under Campbell. They got into position by taking risks − four-for-six on fourth downs. They blew their last chance by not taking a risk, and they knew it.

If they convert the fourth-and-four, game over, they win. Even if they don’t convert, they pin Minnesota a bit deeper. Seibert had already missed from 48 earlier, and the Lions had pinned their hopes again and again on their stout offensive line. The vexing thing about gambles is, by definition, you’ll likely fail at least 50% of the time. With the Lions’ scant margin for error, they need to succeed on virtually every one, or at least on the last one. The misses are magnified, while winning teams overcome them.

“I hate it,” Campbell said of his final call. “I do feel like I cost our team. I really do, man.”

The players appreciated Campbell’s admission and were largely undeterred. They pointed to the positives, outgaining the Vikings 416-373. D’Andre Swift is still bothered by injuries and was limited, but Jamaal Williams ran hard in his place. Goff was 25-for-41 for 277 yards and didn’t commit a turnover until a final desperate heave.

The Lions converted only three of 16 third downs but often ran plays knowing they’d go for it on fourth. When it succeeded, it looked like a game-changer. When it didn’t, it looked like a blunder. That’s the way it works. Campbell is fully prepared for the criticism, and he does need to adjust his aggressive mentality to game situations. That said, going for it on fourth down frequently makes logical and mathematical sense. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s creative play-calling fits a scrappy roster and emboldens Goff.

Even before the final drive, the Lions had a chance to put it away. They led 24-21 when they faced a fourth-and-one at the Vikings 30 with 3:35 remaining. Kick a 47-yard field goal? Again, that only makes it a six-point lead. Convert the fourth down and they’re in better position to run out the clock. Williams’ run up the middle gained nothing and the Vikings got the ball back. The Lions stopped them on downs with 2:32 left, leading to the fateful decision and the fatal kick. Two chances to put it away, two miscalculations.

“We keep saying, we’re close, we’re close,” Goff said. “I think we’re there. We just have to get a first down here and execute on one more play. Throw one more better ball, and it’s over. That game should have been over long before they were able to get back in it. I’m sure they know that. We let them back in it, and that’s our fault.”

Of course the Lions didn’t just lose because of a couple fourth-down calls. They had defensive breakdowns and miscommunication in the secondary, including on Osborn’s wide-open winning reception. While Jeff Okudah and others did a fine job shutting down Justin Jefferson (three receptions, 14 yards), cornerback Amani Oruwariye often battled Adam Thielen and was flagged several times for interference or holding.

“I’m just being aggressive,” Oruwariye said. “Not gonna make excuses, but a couple of those were iffy.”

It’s always iffy to leave it up to the iffies. One penalty here, one yard there. One first down here, one more gamble there. There’s little doubt the Lions are vastly improved over last season, which nudges them into that gray area. Good enough to compete, for sure. Good enough to play it safe and take fewer chances? Not quite.

This close

You can debate all the earlier decisions, but if the Lions don’t extend those possessions with fourth-down conversions, they might not be in it at the end. That’s why the players didn’t lament the loss like they have so many others in which they never had a shot.

“I told the guys afterward, we are right there,” tackle Taylor Decker said, holding his index finger and thumb two inches apart. “I can feel it. Seven years I’ve been here, and we are so close to being a really really good team. We’ve just got to get over the hump. This one’s on us. If we maybe get two more yards on that third down then it’s fourth and one, and maybe it is a little bit easier decision for (Campbell).”

There’s no template for a lot of these decisions. The final field-goal attempt was clearly the wrong move. The fourth-down attempts mostly worked.

Regrets are part of it. Good teams make enough plays to help them forget the regrets. The Lions should remember this regret for a while, and vow not to leave their fate up to the gambling odds.

Bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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