How Dan Campbell Defended Lions’ Questionable Fourth-Down Decisions

Campbell's call on fourth-and-9 changed the game, and not in a good way


Oct 9, 2022

Dan Campbell and the Detroit Lions did something Sunday against the New England Patriots no team in the NFL has accomplished in at least the last four decades.

The Lions’ offense went for it on fourth down six times at Gillette Stadium and did not convert on a single fourth-down attempt. It marked the first time that has happened since at least 1981, according to Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz.

It also played a major factor in Bill Belichick and the Patriots earning a decisive 29-0 victory despite rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe making his first career start.

It’s worth noting that not all fourth-down attempts should be viewed equal. Three times in the second half the Lions went for it on fourth down with the Patriots possessing an advantage greater than three possessions and time ticking away. Given the hole they dug themselves in, and where the ball was, it made some sense. The most questionable decision, however, came with the game very much hanging in the balance as New England held a 6-0 lead in the second quarter with the Lions facing a fourth-and-9 from the New England 32.

“Yeah, I had a yard marker I knew we needed to get inside of in order to feel good about it, to swing away,” Campbell told reporters after the game, as shared by the team, when asked about his confidence in kicker Michael Badgley. “Otherwise, take your chances with the offense.”

Campbell opted to take his chances with the Jared Goff-led offense at that moment, which marked the second failed conversion of the game. It resulted in Matthew Judon coming off the edge and stripping Goff only for Patriots safety Kyler Dugger to scoop up the bouncing ball and take it 59 yards for a New England touchdown. The Patriots took a 13-0 lead with the score, and it proved a massive change of momentum. Campbell described the snap as a play the team liked but admitted it was overshadowed by a mental error.

Detroit later went for it on fourth down on each of their first four second-half possessions. They failed to convert a fourth-and-2 at the New England 34, fourth-and-goal at the New England 5, fourth-and-1 at the New England 31 and fourth-and-4 at the New England 18.

“Yeah, I mean it hurts ’cause that’s really part of third down, right?” Campbell said. “If you don’t convert on third down you better do it on fourth down. And so, we weren’t good enough. That’s an area we’ve been pretty good. When you’re not able to convert those, you’re going to struggle offensively. So, too many of them.

“We weren’t efficient enough on first down,” Campbell continued. “Now, I did think we got some manageable downs we just couldn’t convert them. It was one of those days. Our offense has been pretty steady, played pretty well, and this was a day we didn’t do well. We really never truly got in a true rhythm and we couldn’t convert so we couldn’t stay on the field.”

The Lions entered Week 5 having converted on 66% (8-for-12) of their fourth-down attempts. It certainly depicted the Lions’ aggressive mindset, which Belichick acknowledged earlier in the week, but given the fact New England had a rookie quarterback making his first start, it wasn’t exactly a successful big-picture approach.

Now Campbell, who certainly can kiss any Coach of the Year award goodbye, has the Lions at “rock bottom,” in the words of the head coach with a 1-4 record through five weeks.

Thumbnail photo via Brian Fluharty/USA TODAY Sports Images
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