There’s no other way to describe it.
What we all witnessed Sunday evening was one man’s refusal to change his ways, one man’s belief in his own system so staunch that it ultimately led to a disaster of near-epic proportions, a loss so inconceivable that even for a fan base accustomed to losing, this one took the proverbial cake.
Yes, Lions fans. It happened again, yet this one was avoidable.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water again, your 2023 Lions reminded you, once they Scooby Doo pulled off the mask off the villain, this was your same old Lions.
That’s what made this loss so painful, so shocking, so you can’t believe it happened. The Lions were one-and-a-half quarters away, with a two touchdown (that should have been more) lead, from going to their first ever Super Bowl… and they lost, again.
All we heard going into this game was 1957, the last time the Lions had sniffed a championship, back when they didn’t even have Super Bowls. Newsflash: You still don’t get to have one.
A tale of two halves, the Lions roared out to a shocking lead, scoring quickly on their first possession in the nightcap of Sunday’s action, the NFC Championship Game. They appeared for most of it to be the better team, or at least the more motivated one, the team more equipped to execute, and not get executed. The heavily favored San Francisco 49ers had no answer for the fire that Dan Campbell had infused into that locker room.
That’s what he does, right? Dan Campbell, the Rah Rah guy, the crier, the master motivator, the head coach Detroit had fallen in love with, the man you’d go to bat for, the man who’d go to bat for you, the man we’d all heard is most synonymous with the city he coaches.
Well, ain’t that the truth because the loss we witnessed on Saturday was as synonymous with depression as they come.
Here’s the inexplicable part. With his team leading by fourteen points, midway through the third quarter, the Lions had once again driven downfield, just as they’d done all afternoon. On fourth and a lengthy two (not fourth and inches), Dan Campbell, forever the fiery one who opts to go for it (thank you, sabermetrics) opted not for the field goal and a 17-point (and more importantly, three-possession) lead but rather to keep his offense out on the field and try to convert the fourth down.
This has been Dan Gamble’s way ever since he took the gig. He’s a new school guy in old school clothing. It’s his way of showing faith in his team. It’s his way of telling his opponent, I’m going to beat you and you’re going to have to stop me. It’s also his way, at least on Sunday evening, of ensuring the 2023 Detroit Lions never got to the Super Bowl.
I received this text from Croshere immediately after that first failed conversion.
Now, he and I aren’t head football coaches. We’ve never played in the NFL, nor have we played college football. Nor were we familiar with Campbell’s success rate going for it on fourth-and-three-or-less this season. What we have done, however, is watch a LOT of football over the years, enough to know that, however conservative Dan Campbell might have considered kicking a field goal at that moment, it’s the shrewd play. It puts your team up three scores and keeps the pressure on a San Francisco team who at that point hadn’t been able to score consistently. If you hold San Fran to a three-and-out on their next possession, the game, and your first ever Super Bowl appearance, is all but assured.
Instead? Missed conversion and a momentum shift so thick you could taste it. The Niners immediately drove downfield, scored seven, kicked off, and forced a turnover on the very next play. Within minutes, the Niners, once down two scores (that could have been three), had tied the game.
The air dissipated from the Lions’ first half dominance; they were suddenly on their heels.
It happened again later in the game. With the Niners up three, the Lions drove downfield and were in field goal range, albeit a longer one. 47 yards. On a fourth and about three, a team that had struggled with short yardage plays and running the ball up the middle opted to go for it again instead of kicking the field goal, again Dan Campbell’s call.
With his field goal kicker walking the sidelines wondering if he’d ever see action again, the Lions failed to convert the fourth down and the game was all but over.
The Niners won a game they had no business winning and all were left to question Dan Campbell’s brash tactics. His decision to have faith in his team backfired and re-instilled in a franchise already fraught with draught the sense that they couldn’t win the big one.
Of course, to blame Campbell wholeheartedly would be inaccurate. There were missed receptions, fumbled footballs, blown opportunities, clenched sphincters, and a whole lot of deer in headlights. As the clock wound down, a shocked Detroit team reminded everyone in the last twenty minutes why San Fran was the substantial favorite going in. The Lions team I saw in the first half should have been the same Lions team I saw in the second half, yet it wasn’t.
Same. Old. Lions.
What’s most devastating is that the Lions, or as my one long-suffering Michigander friend calls them “The Lay-Downs,” had convinced themselves this was the one. The skepticism had all but disappeared. What we saw for perhaps for the first time in that franchise’s history was a confident fan base. I’d even seen people walking around town wearing Lions shirts with the wool so completely pulled over their eyes they forgot what was coming. Especially at the midpoint of Sunday’s game. Bottles were popping, they were making Super Bowl plans and offering to help build the Dan Campbell memorial that would soon stand outside that stadium.
Not so much anymore.
This is far from (okay, maybe not all that far from) a fire-able offense for Campbell but it will warrant a stern talking to. What it is is the opportunity to look in the mirror and figure out how you lost that game because when fingers come a-pointing, they will be pointing squarely at Campbell and the refusal to change his ways. With the chance to go to the Super Bowl on the line, the chance to go up by three scores, on the road, take the points and kick the field goal. There is honor in conservatism. It’s the smarter play and one that thirty-one other coaches in the league would make in that moment. I suppose that’s what makes Dan Campbell Dan Campbell. I get that he’s his own man but we’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re winning football games or at least, we’re supposed to be.
The Lions might have missed that early field goal, but it’s unlikely. A missed field goal, like that missed fourth-down conversion, might have swayed momentum San Fransisco’s way, yet also unlikely. Either way, we’ll never know.
When he returns next season, all embittered and after a fair amount of soul-searching, Campbell will remember that moment. We’ll see if he changes his game plan or returns as the same old Campbell. The Lions had a golden opportunity. They might get more. They might not. Football is a game of inches and bad decisions. We’ll see how many more of those are in the Gambler’s future. Either way, it will be a long off-season waiting for another chance.