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In Defense of Dan Campbell

Joshua Linnehan – Sports Writer

The Detroit Lions were unbelievably close to making their first Super Bowl appearance in the Super Bowl era. Instead they are on the other side of history once again. The Lions blew a 24-7 halftime lead, and lost by a final score of 34-31 to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship game. Their blown 17 point lead ties the 2012 Atlanta Falcons for the largest blown lead in NFC Championship history. The person who seems to get the most blame for this loss is Lions head coach, Dan Campbell. Due to risky play calls that didn’t pay off and questionable responses in postgame interviews, Campbell is getting all the heat. But before we get into what exactly happened, let’s shed some light on the success that Campbell has had as head coach prior to this game. 

On January 20th, 2021, Dan Campbell was hired to be the new head coach of the struggling Detroit Lions franchise. He definitely gave a strong first impression in his introductory press conference as he said the iconic quote, 

“We’re going to kick you in the teeth…We’re gonna get knocked down and on the way up, we’re going to bite a kneecap off…Before long we’re going to be the last one standing.”

It was known from day one that Campbell meant business, but the question is would he actually be able to turn around a franchise that hadn’t even won a playoff game since 1991? 

At first it was ugly, as Detroit started the 2021 season 0-10-1, and finished with a 3-13-1 record. The next season was more of the same, starting out 1-6. However, midway through the 2022 season there was a switch. Detroit would win eight of the next ten games in the regular season, finishing with their first winning season since 2017, and staying in playoff contention until the final week. Campbell is viewed as a players coach, a guy who has a deep connection with his players and pushes them to work hard and stay disciplined. A perfect example of this comes from an episode of Hard Knocks back in 2022 when he delivered a passionate speech to his team during training camp,

“All I think about is you guys. That’s all I think about, man…and how I set you up for the best possible advantage I can give you to have a season. I swear to you, man. I just need you to trust me, that’s all.”

Through his incredible coaching, the Lions started the 2023 season with a 8-2 record, their best start to a season since 1962. They finished the season 12-5, which tied a franchise record for wins and was good enough to secure their first NFC North division title since 1993. They would also host their first home playoff game since then as well. In the Wild Card round, they would beat their former quarterback, Matthew Stafford, and the Los Angeles Rams, 24-23, to secure their first playoff win in 33 years. The next week, they beat the Tampa Bay Bucs by a final of 31-23, leading to the NFC Championship game. 

Another aspect of Campbell’s coaching is that he’s extremely aggressive as a play caller. The Lions had the second most fourth down attempts and conversations during the regular season, only behind the Carolina Panthers in both categories. Overall, they were 21/40 on fourth down plays. Up 24-10 in the third quarter of the NFC Championship game, Campbell took a gamble and went for it on a 4th and two on the 49er 28 yard line and didn’t convert. The Niners would score a touchdown on the next drive. Then, down 27-24 in the fourth quarter, again Detroit went for it on 4th and three from the 49er 30 yard line and didn’t convert. Once again, the Niners scored a touchdown on the next drive, securing the victory. While it is just two plays, it’s undeniable that the Lions left a potential six points on the board that would have won the game for them. I suppose the fourth quarter attempt was reasonable since the game was close, but there’s no reason to go for it on fourth down with a two touchdown lead like they did in the third. After the game, Campbell had this to say at his presser when asked about the fourth down decisions,

“It’s easy in hindsight and I get it…but I don’t regret those decisions and that’s hard…because you know we didn’t come through.”

Later on in the press conference, Campbell had some more questionable comments about what he said to his team after the game, 

“I told those guys, ‘This may have been our only shot.’ Do I think that? No. Do I believe that? No. However, I know how hard it is to get here.”

Telling your players that they may not have another chance to compete for a Super Bowl after a heartbreaking loss is definitely not what they want to hear. However, this moment is where I once again realize the incredible coach that Campbell really is. Keeping it real with your players is a better option than telling them they will be right back next season. If he told them that, then maybe the players won’t try as hard because they think it’ll be easier for them. By telling them this may be their only chance, it’s just gonna fuel the fire to want it even more.

While it is going to be twice as hard to get there this time, I’m confident that Campbell and the Detroit Lions will put in the effort that is needed to get back to this spot. So while there is some worthy criticism toward Campbell’s coaching, I still believe he’s one of the best coaches to play for in the NFL right now. This Detroit team will stay relentless and driven to finally give the city of Detroit a Super Bowl, as long as Campbell is at the helm.