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THE MOJ: Can’t praise Detroit Lion courage in wins, criticize it in losses

Coach Dan Campbell’s team stuck with what had worked for them
Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell speaks at a news conference after the NFC Championship NFL football game against the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. (AP Photo/Jed Jacobsohn)

Live by the sword, die by the sword.

How else do you describe some of the decisions made by Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell during Sunday’s 34-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game.

Campbell’s two controversial fourth-down gambles in the second half of the NFL’s penultimate game have fans and media alike blaming him for the Lions loss.

Newsflash: There’s a lot of blame to go around.

The Lions blew a 17-point second-half lead that cost them a trip to the Super Bowl and everyone contributed to it.

Whether it was a fumble by running back Jahmyr Gibbs, a couple of dropped passes by receiver Josh Reynolds, or a defence that turned into a sieve in the second half, there were numerous reasons for the Lions collapse.

Unfortunately for Campbell, it starts with him.

Midway through the third quarter with Detroit leading 24-10, the Lions were faced with a fourth-and-two at the San Francisco 28-yard line. Campbell elected to go for it instead of sending out Michael Badgley to attempt a 45-yard field goal that – if successful - would have made it a three-score game.

On fourth down, Lions quarterback Jared Goff tried to hit Reynolds on a pass that the latter couldn’t get a handle on.

The turnover on downs gave San Francisco life and it took the 49ers offence just five plays to drive 72 yards and reduce the Lions lead to 24-17.

Now a one-score game, the 49ers were back in it.

The other controversial decision was made midway through the fourth quarter with the Lions trailing 27-24 and facing a fourth-and-three at the 49ers 30-yard line.

Campbell decided to forgo the 47-yard field goal attempt to tie the game and gamble yet again on fourth down. Once more, Goff and the offence failed to convert in a critical situation, and once more the 49ers responded with a touchdown.

Seven plays and 70 yards later, the 49ers upped their lead to 34-24.

Game, set and match San Francisco.

As far as Campbell’s fourth down decisions are concerned, I have more of an issue with the first gamble than the second.

If you are up by 14 points on the road, take the points.


You never want to give a team life.

Even from an analytical perspective, there wasn’t a huge advantage in win probability by converting the fourth down midway through the third. According to one model, the difference in win probability was 0.3%.

Instead, the stop on fourth down gave the 49ers the spark they needed.

“Momentum certainly changed pretty quickly. They scored, we didn’t convert the fourth down, they scored again, we turned the ball over. That little sequence right there makes it tough,” explained Goff.

The second gamble didn’t bother me as much.


Campbell’s critics claim that kicking a field goal ties the game at 27 and hopefully allows the Lions to reset for the final 7:32 of the fourth quarter.

But I understand why Campbell was more inclined to go for it there.

The Lions defence, which was solid in holding the 49ers to 10 points and 132 yards of offence in the first half of the game, was absolutely horrendous in the second half.

How bad were the Lions? All of the 49ers second-half drives resulted in points.

The 49ers were a perfect five-for-five when it mattered - field goal, touchdown, touchdown, field goal and touchdown with the only ‘blemish’ being when they ran out the clock at the end of the game and technically turned the ball over on downs.

When the smoke cleared, the 49ers had racked up 281 yards of offence in their five second-half scoring drives.

So when Campbell saw his defence give up 20 points in the preceding four drives, I understood going for six and the lead rather than settling for three and the tie.

“It’s easy hindsight. I get it but I don’t regret those decisions and it’s hard. It’s hard because we didn’t come through, and it wasn’t able to work out, but I don’t. I understand the scrutiny I’ll get. That’s part of the gig but it just didn’t work out,” Campbell told the media afterwards.

As I’ve mentioned I may not agree with some of Campbell’s decisions but I respect them.

The Lions went for it on fourth down 40 times this season – only Carolina had more attempts with 48 – and only Carolina had more conversions (23) than the Lions (21).

Campbell stayed true to his philosophy, so give him credit.

If you want to criticize that philosophy, I don’t have an issue with it.

What I do have an issue with is those fans and media who praised Campbell for his gambling style when those decisions paid off in a 12-5 regular season and playoff wins over the L.A. Rams and Tampa Bay yet were quick to criticize him on Sunday when those decisions didn’t produce the desired results.

You can’t have it both ways.

If you really want to take Campbell and his staff to task, perhaps the abandonment of the running game in the second half should take priority.

The Lions imposed their will on the 49ers in the first half as they rushed for 148 yards on 20 carries.

In the second half, the Lions ran the ball eight times for 34 yards.

After David Montgomery ripped off a 16-yard run to give Detroit a first-and-ten at the San Francisco 37, the Lions threw the ball three straight times to set up the fateful fourth-and-three which they failed to convert.

It’s as if the Lions forgot about what brought them success in the first half.

And the clock management on the last drive wasn’t textbook either.

Faced with a first-and-goal at the 49ers nine-yard line with 1:16 remaining, Goff should have thrown the ball in the end zone every play.

That would have meant possibly four attempts that probably would have left around 55 seconds to a minute at worst after scoring. More importantly, you would still have all three of your timeouts ready to be used when the 49ers took over possession. The plan at that point would have been kickoff, pray that your defence gets something they hadn’t done in the second half - a stop - and get the ball back with around 35 to 40 seconds to get into field goal range.

Instead, the Lions ran the ball on third down with Montgomery being stuffed for a two-yard loss and forcing Campbell to use a timeout.

The Lions scored on the ensuing play to make it 34-31 but using the timeout killed any hope of getting the football back as the 49ers ran out the clock.


* Goff’s father Jerry was a MLB catcher who spent some time with the Montreal Expos, Pittsburgh Pirates and Houston Astros in the 1990’s. Jerry Goff has the dubious distinction of being tied with two other catchers (Rube Vickers and Geno Petralli) for the most passed balls in a single game with six.

* By advancing to Super Bowl LVIII, the 49ers will be making their eighth trip to the big game and now are in a tie with Pittsburgh, Dallas and Denver for second in all-time appearances. New England leads the way with 11.

* A reminder that we will have full coverage of Super Bowl LVIII from Radio Row in Las Vegas for the 23rd consecutive year with podcasts being available on this site as well as Sportsnet 650 will also air our Northwest Tank Lines Super Bowl shows from 10pm to midnight from Tuesday through Saturday of Super Bowl week.

Veteran B.C. sports personality Bob “the Moj” Marjanovich writes twice weekly for Black Press Media.

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