Detroit Lions, the darlings of ‘Hard Knocks,’ on hard times due to Dan Campbell’s mistakes

Detroit Free Press

NFL teams like to break their seasons into quarters. It’s a trick the bad teams use to keep hope alive when most everyone has hit eject on their seasons, and one the good teams employ to not get too wide-eyed about what lies ahead.

For the Detroit Lions, the way the calendar falls this year, it makes more sense to divide the season into thirds.

The first third of their 18-week season is over, or will be once this week’s bye has passed, and the 1-4 Lions are about to enter the meat of their schedule as the most disappointing team in the league.

The darlings of “Hard Knocks” have fallen on hard times, and the head coach who gave the organization hope — who brought grit and personality to a team that lacked both, and who helped navigate a difficult 2021 season by galvanizing a young locker room — has done just as much to take it away.

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Dan Campbell blamed himself for his team’s Week 3 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, when his decision to try a 54-yard field goal with 1:14 to play backfired. Campbell should have kept his offense on the field to try and convert a fourth-and-4, or take a delay of game penalty, punt and pin the Vikings deep. He did neither. Austin Seibert missed his kick. And the Vikings marched down a short field, scored a touchdown and won the game.

On Sunday in a 29-0 loss to the New England Patriots, Campbell out-thunk himself on another fourth down and it cost his team its second chance at a road victory in three weeks.

On fourth-and-9 late in the first half, after a failed third-down play lost 7 yards, Campbell kept his offense on the field rather than attempt a 50-yard kick. Jared Goff fumbled. The Patriots recovered and returned it for a touchdown. And the Lions spent the rest of the day punching at air as Bill Belichick waltzed to victory.

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Campbell explained his latest game management gaffe by saying he wasn’t comfortable with new kicker Michael Badgley, Seibert’s second replacement, attempting a 50-yard field goal. That’s discomforting that an NFL coach can’t trust his kicker from 50 yards, but understandable given the situation — in a 6-0 game, with a rookie third-string quarterback playing for the other team — and Badgley’s sordid history of kicks (3 of 10 on 50-plus-yarders for his career).

The Lions should have punted, pinned the Patriots deep and done their best to stay in a one-score game. Fourth-and-9s are not easy to convert, and while Campbell could not have forecast Goff’s careless fumble, he should have heeded his own words when talking about the Patriots last week.

“They’re going to make you beat yourself,” he warned reporters last Wednesday. “They’ll play the long game here and make you make a mistake and then capitalize on it.”

That’s exactly what the Patriots did Sunday, settling for field goal after field goal with Bailey Zappe executing Belichick’s well-worn game plan to perfection, and seizing the opportunity when Campbell muddled himself into a mistake.

I’ve championed Campbell’s aggressive approach to play calling and must reiterate now it should not change. The Lions set a modern NFL record Sunday for most fourth down attempts without a conversion (six), and most of those tries were grounded in logic or necessary due to the script of the game.

For the season, the Lions are 8 of 18 on fourth downs, on pace to set single-season records for both attempts (61) and conversions (27). There’s a video game feel to Campbell’s approach, but analytically he is largely doing the right thing.

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Campbell said Sunday he plans to re-evaluate everything about the Lions’ operation during the bye.

“I’m going to change some things up,” he said. “I mean, I’m going to look at everything. The way we practice, the way we go about it. Do we need to practice longer? Do we need to practice less? Do we put on pads? Do we not put (on pads)? Those are all things that I’ll be looking at over the next week.”

Presumably, that entails his own decision-making, too, and specifically the lengths he is reaching for trying to cover for his team’s many shortcomings.

The defense we knew would be bad. Goff’s turnover problems helped push him out of L.A. The Lions’ kicking problems date to their decision 19 months ago to let Matt Prater walk in free agency.

When Campbell compounds those deficiencies with game mismanagement, the Lions don’t stand a chance to win.

The Lions’ issues go far beyond their head coach. Their thin roster has been ravaged by injuries. Their pass rush has disappeared the past two weeks. Their offense is due for regression. And the Patriots might have given future opponents the blueprint on how to stop the Lions’ high-scoring ways, though Goff insisted that wasn’t the case.

(New England simply beat the Lions on key downs by playing man coverage, Goff said. With a healthy Amon-Ra St. Brown, D’Andre Swift and DJ Chark in the lineup, presumably that will change.)

As bad as things have been, the Lions season is not hopelessly lost yet, even if it’s trending that way.

Just seven teams have winning records in the mediocre NFC, which means the playoffs are still an oasis off in the distance, as likely as they are to become a mirage in the next six weeks.

The Lions’ poor start to the season is particularly disappointing given what lies ahead. When they return from the bye, they face a difficult middle third of the season against mostly playoff contenders: The Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and Green Bay Packers await immediately after the bye, followed by the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Buffalo Bills.

The Cowboys, with the league’s best defense, and Bills, with Josh Allen at quarterback, are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. The Bears are the only slouch in that group, and they’re a game ahead of the Lions in the standings. The Giants are one of the surprise teams in the NFL, what the Lions were supposed to be. And the Packers still have Aaron Rodgers and a stout defense, though their offense is sitting on cinderblocks in the driveway.

Perhaps the Lions will catch a break. The Cowboys and Dolphins could be starting backup quarterbacks, though that was little solace Sunday.

Chances are we’ll spend another Thanksgiving dissecting the draft and discussing what changes the Lions need to make to their roster and coaching staff next year.

That remains the real make-or-break season for Campbell, at least for those whose will his game management hasn’t broken already.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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