DETROIT – When the Detroit Lions hired Dan Campbell, everyone expected him to be more of a motivator than a revolutionary football mind.
Late in Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns, he was neither.
The winless Lions clawed their way within striking distance of victory, but Campbell made a pair of fourth-quarter blunders that handcuffed a team that already starts every game facing an uphill battle.
The first came with nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Lions, after trailing 13-0 until the waning moments of the third quarter, had actually built up some strong momentum.
D’Andre Swift scored on a 57-yard touchdown run with 1:55 left in the third, and after that, the Lions defense forced a punt and picked off a pass in Cleveland territory. The offense took over at the 34-yard line, down by six points.
Three plays later, it was fourth down and one. The Lions had run the ball well the entire second half, and again, they trailed by six points. This felt like their best chance to get in the end zone, and they only needed one yard to extend the drive.
Instead, Campbell elected to kick the field goal, meaning his offense would need to start from scratch and put together another scoring drive in the final nine minutes.
It just didn’t make any sense.
His second decision was even more jarring. The only possible justification for kicking that field goal would be trusting the defense to get the ball back for one last drive -- and that’s exactly what happened.
Detroit took over with 5:16 left on the clock and immediately gained 24 yards to the 40-yard line. After two conservative play calls allowed the clock to run down under 3:30, it was clear this would likely be the team’s last drive of the game.
Then, on third down and 14, the Lions elected to run a halfback draw to Swift, who gained five yards. It’s a questionable call, but if the team was planning to make the yardage more manageable for fourth down, it could be understood.
Instead, Campbell punted the ball back to the Browns on fourth and nine with 2:36 left to play. Three first downs later, the Baker Mayfield kneeled out the clock. The Lions never saw the ball again.
Play calling duties
The Lions have been incredibly conservative the last two weeks, which coincides with Campbell inserting himself into the play calling mix.
Yes, the Lions have awful quarterback play, and yes, the strength of the offense is the rushing attack. But on Sunday, Swift -- by far the team’s most talented player -- began that third-quarter touchdown drive with only six carries -- six! He finished the game with 136 yards on 14 carries, but it’s hard not to wonder what could have happened if he was used much earlier.
Swift can keep possessions alive, give the Lions’ defense some time on the sideline and -- perhaps most importantly -- take pressure off his shaky quarterbacks. This is incredibly basic football strategy.
The Lions are 0-9-1, so it’s not as if any of these games matter anymore. But still, a coach’s job ultimately boils down to putting his players in the best position to succeed, and Campbell didn’t do that.