Dan Campbell, analytics and where the real truth about fourth down rests

The day-after reaction to a pair of controversial fourth-down calls by Detroit coach Dan Campbell in the 34-31 loss to San Francisco in the NFC championship game is every bit as predictable as the calls themselves. 

This shifted away from Campbell. It’s now an analytics debate, as if “analytics” is an assistant coach in the booth. 

It becomes an outcomes-and-execution discussion, and the fact Lions receiver Josh Reynolds should have caught Jared Goff’s fourth-and-2 pass from the 28-yard line is a valid argument. 

We can say the Lions’ all-aggressive approach is what got them to this point, and that might be true, too. All of those variables are no doubt part of the discussion, which will be used to fill air time for the week before Super Bowl week.

DECOURCY: Dan Campbell botches Lions shot at a Super Bowl

The truth, however, is those fourth-down calls will always be about the coach, and nothing can distract from that. Campbell has been defined by fourth down – for better and worse – in three years with Detroit. 

“It’s easy hindsight,” Campbell said. “I get it. I get that, 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. And I understand the scrutiny I’ll get – that’s part of the gig – but it just didn’t work out.”

Campbell is the reason the Lions had a shot at the Super Bowl. Those fourth-down calls also are the reason why the Lions won’t be playing in Super Bowl 58. It is fair to come to both conclusions, even if the first part of the equation will get Campbell a free pass of sorts based on that identity. 

MORE: SN experts make their picks for Super Bowl 58

Detroit had not played in a NFC championship game since 1991. The Lions were 22 of 45 on fourth down (including postseason) – a combined 48.9% success rate slightly higher than that of hitting red or black on a United State roulette wheel, which is at 47.3%. Campbell likes to gamble. This is not breaking news. 

Analytics is not just a useful coaching tool. It’s a necessary coaching tool that every NFL team uses. Yet Campbell – the ultimate emotional leader – ignored the ultimate emotional trend at Levi’s Stadium. The Lions could have been up 27-10 with 6:58 left in the third quarter. Instead, they were tied 24-24 with 3:02 left in the third quarter.  

Even with that information, you can justify the first fourth-down call. Reynolds should have caught the ball. Maybe Michael Badgley missed the field-goal attempt. 

The second fourth-down call – where Campbell elected to go for it on fourth-and-3 from the 30-yard line down 27-24 with 7:32 remaining in the fourth quarter – was less justifiable. Goff’s deep pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown was nowhere close. Will Badgley really miss two in a row? Why not tie the game, get a stop and reset the offense for a game-winning drive? 

One could argue that the improbable series of events that followed Reynolds’ drop were statistically improbable, but those people obviously did not watch the Bills rally from a 35-3 deficit for a 41-38 victory in the 1992 AFC wild card matchup against the Oilers. The comeback started with an unintentional squib kick. Ask the players on the field if momentum matters in those high-stakes moments. Football happens. 49ers tight end George Kittle addressed that afterward. 

“Why do analytics people say that momentum is not a real thing?” Kittle said in his post-game press conference. “I had this conversation with Pat McAfee and he was like, ‘Yeah, all these people say momentum is not real.’ That’s just the biggest load of horse crap I’ve ever heard of in my entire life.” 

MORE: Looking at Lions K Michael Badgley’s stats

Going for it on fourth down has become a badge of honor in the NFL. It’s always glorified with references to an all-balls mentality and the comparisons to playing “Madden.” It works for Campbell. It didn’t work for Los Angeles’ coach Brandon Staley, who was fired-and-replaced by Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh – whose Wolverines were 17 of 22 on fourth down this season en route to a national championship. 

Fourth down is always about the coach who makes the call and how they fit into that analytics vs. momentum discussion. Need proof? Imagine if Campbell’s first name was “Mike.”

As in Mike McDaniel – the Miami coach with the offense that averaged 29.2 points per game. It’s cool whenever McDaniel goes for it – though the Dolphins were 14 of 31 on fourth down this season. McDaniel is one of the hip young coaches in the NFL, however, so he would get less heat than Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. 

Imagine if the Steelers passed on points twice in an AFC championship game with Tomlin. Tomlin might not lose his job, but that’s a six-time Super Bowl-winning franchise. Tomlin would be criticized the entire offseason and then some – and then some more.  

We don’t even want to picture what social media would do to Mike McCarthy had the Cowboys done that on this stage. Would Cowboys owner Jerry Jones fire McCarthy on the spot? By the way, Dallas has not been to the NFC championship game since 1995. 

Of course, one can say, “Cool story, bruh.” All of those teams were bounced in the wild-card round this year. Campbell was in the NFC championship game. Yet the same thing happens in college, too. It’s always about the coach. 

The last play of Nick Saban’s career at Alabama was a fourth-and-goal against No. 1 Michigan in the Rose Bowl Game. Jalen Milroe was stuffed on a quarterback draw. Granted, the Crimson Tide had to go for it in that do-or-die spot, but why run the ball? Saban, however, had seven national championships, and the blame shifted to offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. 

Amazing how that happens, right? 

Oregon’s Dan Lanning made three ill-fated fourth-down calls against Washington in a 36-33 loss on Oct. 14, 2023, and the same Dan Campbell-like debate happened. There were several supporters that rushed to stand with Lanning’s decision-making, and the Ducks eventually got another shot at the Huskies in the Pac-12 championship game. 

Lanning – like Campbell – was forced to watch the final game instead of participating in it. That’s not to say either coach will not get back to that spot. Both are promising coaches who are loved in part because of their sound bites and aggressive in-game approach. The more times you miss, however, the more invited scrutiny is coming. Campbell knows that, and perhaps that is why he told his players “This may have been our only shot” afterward.  

In Detroit, Campbell will still have that unabashed support. The Lions are a Super Bowl contender now and will be again in 2024. Their fans also will still feel the pain of watching Super Bowl 58 from home. It is fair to come to both conclusions, too, and Campbell might not be given the same latitude next time if he doesn’t take the points. 

Speaking of Super Bowl 58, the 49ers had the fewest fourth-down attempts this season at 14. San Francisco averaged 16.7 fourth-down attempts the last three seasons; a shade higher than the Chiefs at 15.7. Those teams have combined for 97 fourth-down attempts – while the Lions have 118 in the same stretch. 

Which approach works better? 

Given the Chiefs and 49ers have both played on conference championship weekend each of the last three years, it’s best to be in a position where you don’t have to go for it on fourth down all the time. It’s tough to argue that one, no matter what the analytics say.

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