Dan Campbell Doesn’t Deserve Criticism for Lions’ Loss to 49ers
In most cases, opting for a fourth-and-3 instead of the game-tying kick well within field-goal range during the last quarter of the NFC championship game deserves plenty of criticism. The kind of rants that drive up TV ratings for the screaming heads on debate shows.
But not for Dan Campbell. Not for a Detroit Lions team that has never gone to a Super Bowl. No need to play it safe when nothing has worked for the franchise in the modern era of football.
Campbell’s aggressive ways got the Lions one half away from winning their first non-division championship since 1957—10 years before the first Super Bowl. The Lions punched first, then took a vicious combination in the form of 20 unanswered points from the San Francisco 49ers. The Lions were still standing and took their best swing on fourth-and-3, as Jared Goff was flushed to his right amid pressure before his failed pass hit the ground a few yards in front of Amon-Ra St. Brown.
The Lions refused to go down without a fight, but it was over after Campbell’s failed fourth down that garnered plenty of criticism on social media Sunday night and likely will Monday morning on all the TV debate shows. The 49ers survived a late rally from the Lions, but they completed their comeback victory, 34–31, to head to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2019.
As for the Lions, they had their hearts ripped out, but they will likely return to this stage because they appear committed to the formula that’s been working ever since the Lions hired Campbell and GM Brad Holmes in 2021. Not many were complaining about “Dan Gamble” when the Lions were largely successful on fourth downs in the regular season and against the Los Angeles Rams and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the postseason.
“I don’t regret those decisions,” Campbell said. “And I understand the scrutiny I’ll get. That’s part of the gig. But it just didn’t work out.”
Save the criticism for a different franchise. But as Campbell mentioned, he welcomes all opinions, positive and negative, which is another reason why he’s one of the best coaches in the NFL. He gets his strategy is not the norm, but he still does things his way. The same way the Lions drafted a running back with the No. 12 pick (Jahmyr Gibbs), who then promptly totaled 1,501 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns in 18 regular season and postseason games.
I was one of those who criticized the Lions for drafting Gibbs and a linebacker (Jack Campbell) in the first round. I was also negative when the Lions drafted tight end Sam LaPorta instead of Michael Mayer. But, hey, I at least appreciated the Lions for doing things their way and not listening to public opinion, even when many pundits fell in love with them during their late surge last season.
As the old saying goes, scared money don’t make money. And Campbell’s Lions made plenty on money downs this season. (Perhaps Birdman would appreciate that hip-hop bar; the No. 1 Stunna rapper was on the field hanging with 49ers legend Jerry Rice. And Detroit’s own Eminem gave 49ers fans the finger while observing the game from a box at Levi’s Stadium.)
Anyway, don’t feel bad for the Lions. The pain hurts right now and it will for weeks, possibly months, but they can take solace in knowing that they truly went for it Sunday. They didn’t play it safely as the Buffalo Bills did last weekend when they went for a game-tying field goal that went wide right against the Kansas City Chiefs.
“Not letting them play long ball,” Campbell said of the 49ers, who rallied from a 24–7 halftime deficit. “They were bleeding the clock out. That’s what they do, and I wanted to get the upper hand back.”
The 49ers opened the game with a missed Jake Moody field goal and opened the second half with a 43-yard field goal from Moody. Settling for field goals wasn’t the best approach, but it helped the 49ers stay in the game for a slow rally. San Francisco’s defense stepped up with a stop on fourth-and-2 from its 28-yard line to keep it a 14-point game midway through the third quarter. That’s when the collapse started to seem inevitable for Detroit.
For all his faults, Brock Purdy at least isn’t afraid to take shots downfield, which was an issue during the days with Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco. Purdy tested the Lions’ shaky secondary and went deep to Brandon Aiyuk for a pass that bounced off the head of cornerback Kindle Vildor and into the arms of Aiyuk for a 51-yard completion. A few plays later, Purdy found Aiyuk again for a six-yard touchdown and cut the deficit to 24–17 with 5:17 in the third quarter.
But the game-tying score didn’t fall on Aaron Glenn’s Detroit defense. Gibbs fumbled after a bad exchange with Goff. The 49ers turned the takeaway into a Christian McCaffrey one-yard touchdown score to tie it at 24. The Lions tried to gain the momentum back on the second failed fourth down, but they couldn’t stop the bleeding and were soon down 34–24.
It’s easy to say the Lions, a team filled with inexperienced players, will learn from this loss and have a bright future. Yes, they have their flaws on both sides of the ball. But they’re loaded with up-and-coming talent, including Aidan Hutchinson, Brian Branch, Alim McNeill and Ifeatu Melifonwu. And that’s just on the defensive side.
Goff delivered in the postseason and made many Detroit fans believe in him. Many were at Levi’s Stadium chanting his name hours before kickoff. He probably will receive a nice contract extension in the offseason.
Gibbs might be hurting the most among the many young players on Detroit’s roster. His fumble was costly, but he was a difference maker in his rookie season. Campbell told his team to have the same hunger next season, but he also told them the cold, hard truth.
“I told those guys, this may have been our only shot,” Campbell said. “Do I think that? No. … I know how hard it is to get here. I’m well aware and it’ll be twice as hard to get back to this point next year than it was this year. That’s the reality.”
That’s why Campbell gets it. He doesn’t care if you don’t get his ways. The Lions want him to continue being truthful to himself and his team. That’s what he did on fourth-and-3 Sunday.