It was early in the fourth quarter when the Detroit Lions faced a third-and-1 on their own 27-yard line against the Minnesota Vikings Sunday. The Lions led, 24-14.
Their best running back, D’Andre Swift, was hobbled, but he had just caught a 6-yard pass on first down and had run for 3 yards on second. If he wasn’t 100%, he was still effective.
Dan Campbell, the Lions’ head coach, assumed the Vikings would be geared to stop a run, and when the play came in to throw the ball down the field, hoped his offense might catch Minnesota napping — or stacked too closely to the line of scrimmage.
It’s painful, I know, and before I continue, I’d encourage you to take a breath, preferably a deep one, for you know exactly the play I’m describing: Jared Goff dropped back, got decent protection, and heaved the ball down the right sideline to Josh Reynolds, who was tightly covered by Patrick Peterson.
Campbell, and his offensive coordinator, Ben Johnson, bet that Reynolds could get separation. He could not, and the ball fell to the turf, forcing the Lions to punt.
It’s easy to second-guess play calling and the overall decisions of coaches. And if Goff had connected with Reynolds and flipped the field and the Lions eventually scored a touchdown, well, we’re writing about Campbell’s guts and confidence and, more specifically, the growth of Goff into a heady, fourth-quarter playmaker.
He may yet be; he played his best game as a Lion despite the loss.
For the moment, though, his play is beside the point, because his head coach put him in a difficult spot when he asked him to chuck it down the field. And, unlike the regret Campbell expressed for calling for a field goal near the end of the game, this is a decision he said he’d make again.
Such stubbornness is a little worrisome, unless he’s protecting his offensive coordinator. Whatever it is, Campbell is reminding everyone that coaches are no different than players: they need time to learn and develop.
Now, you can argue that last season and the half-season he had in Miami should be enough. And that’s fine if you believe no player ever gets better after his first 32 games.
But lots of players do, and should, and it’s reasonable to expect that they should. Just as its reasonable to expect Campbell to get a better feel for what his team needs from him in the fourth quarter, when so many NFL games are won and lost.
Campbell, to his credit, said as much Monday when asked what Sunday night felt like for him after the heartbreaking loss:
“Yeah, look, I can’t sleep, win or lose. You get an hour, and then you’re up, and you just think about it. You process the information. What could I have done better? And how do you change the game from your own aspect … I’ve got to be better … I’ve got to learn from it no different than the players have to, and I’ve got to do my part, and I plan on doing my part.”
Mostly, he’s got to be himself when the game gets tight, and the clock is ticking. Because the Lions are showing they thrive under that guy.
One of the hardest things in sports — heck, in life — is to be who you are when there is risk involved. Campbell is a charismatic, empathetic and aggressive coach who obviously connects with his players and, by force of personality, gets them to play for him.
This was obvious during his first season. It’s even more obvious now.
Yet he didn’t look like that coach in the fourth quarter in Minneapolis. His body language changed. He didn’t look like his normal self.
For good reason, of course. His team was closing on its first road win under him. Beyond that, the franchise he helps lead was closing in on its most impressive win in years, the kind of win that can change the direction — and expectation — for a season.
That’s weighty stuff. The kind of stuff that can make a lot of us retreat, ever so slightly, which helps explain why he called for a field goal on fourth-and-4 when a first down — or a pooch punt — gave the team better odds to win the game.
Which brings us back to the third-and-1 earlier in the fourth quarter. Obviously, there was no guarantee the Lions would’ve picked up the first down if they’d given the ball to Swift. Nor is there anything wrong with Campbell and Johnson calling for a pass to out-maneuver Minnesota.
What doesn’t make sense — leading by 10 on the road early in the fourth quarter — is throwing a go-route against a good cornerback when the playbook surely offers a dozen other pass plays to convert and third-and-one that don’t involve a low-risk heave down the sideline.
Here’s how Campbell explained the decision Monday:
“It was one of those plays we felt like we were going to get the look we wanted. We get good protection. We knew they would be playing the run, so you’re able to latch up on those guys. Goff would have time to see it, and we felt like Reynolds could win on the perimeter, and it ended up being tight coverage and didn’t work out for us. But I don’t … I’m good with the decision.”
He shouldn’t be, even accepting that no single play — or play call — wins or loses a game (math doesn’t work like that). Because that same call in that same spot is going to lead to a punt almost every time.
At least with the field goal call there’s a decent chance it’s good, and the Lions are kicking off, and the Vikings must go 75 yards instead of 56. Then again, maybe they give up the winning touchdown from there, too, or maybe no decision would’ve worked because you’re doomed to suffer.
But I’m not buying it.
This team looks and sounds different. Campbell is a big reason for it. He just needs to get better at playing the odds and understanding how to navigate the moment.
That starts with being himself for all four quarters.
Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.