Lions’ Dan Campbell made bad decisions during NFC title game, but not the ones you think


Sunday night’s NFC Championship Game saw a historic comeback by the San Francisco 49ers as they rallied from a 17-point deficit against the Detroit Lions to punch a ticket to Las Vegas for Super Bowl 58 and a rematch with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Brock Purdy and the 49ers, of course, deserve a lot of credit for mounting a season-saving comeback, but anyone who watched the game knows the Lions left the door wide open for such a revival.

And if you spent any amount of time on social media during or after Sunday’s game, you probably came across some debates about Lions coach Dan Campbell’s fourth-down decision-making. Campbell is known for his aggressiveness on fourth downs — the Lions led the league in fourth-down attempts this season — but I think there is reason to dive a little deeper into how aggressive he really is. Two of his decisions Sunday night stole the show, but I think three other decisions aren’t getting as much attention as they should, with at least two of them seeming like bigger errors in judgment.

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Dan Campbell: ‘I don’t regret’ fourth-down decisions

However, let’s quickly discuss the two decisions under the most intense scrutiny: first, his choice to go for it on fourth-and-2 at the 49ers’ 28-yard line with 7:03 left in the third quarter with the Lions leading 24-10. The second was a fourth-and-3 at the 49ers’ 30-yard line with 7:32 left in the fourth quarter with the Lions trailing 27-24. Both plays resulted in a turnover on downs.

Was going for the right call in both spots? Campbell certainly believed he was putting his team in the best position to win, but is it actually possible to quantify whether he was right or wrong? Sure. Well, kind of.

Over the past few years, a few fourth-down decision statistical models have been derived for public consumption, while teams certainly have their own in-house models for in-game decision-making. Basically, the models spit out a projected win probability for a team if it decides to go for it on fourth down or if it decides to kick/punt. Whichever is the highest probability is deemed the optimal decision to maximize a team’s chances of winning the game.

For this exercise, I’m going to choose the rbsdm.com model to gauge whether Campbell gave the Lions a better chance of winning.

According to rbsdm, the Lions were expected to gain 2.2 and 2.0 percent of win probability by going for it in those two highly scrutinized decisions. Unfortunately, an inaccurate pass to Josh Reynolds by Jared Goff in the third quarter and a tough throw on the run in the fourth quarter both ended up with the 49ers taking over on downs.

So, the computer certainly thought Campbell made the right decision in those situations. The outcomes simply didn’t go his way.

But remember that I mentioned there were three plays that I thought should get more attention that were largely ignored? Two of the plays actually resulted in points but didn’t get as much public scrutiny. One was the decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 49ers’ 3-yard line with 56 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, trailing by 10. Ultimately, Goff found Jameson Williams for a touchdown, and the Lions cut the 49ers lead to 3. This decision to go for it, rather than kick a field goal, gave the Lions an extra 1.7 percent of win probability. While that doesn’t seem like much, it landed in a similar range of win probability as the two heavily scrutinized decisions from earlier in the game.

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GO DEEPER

Did Dan Campbell’s fourth-down decisions cost the Lions a Super Bowl berth? Let’s hash it out

Three fourth-down decisions resulting in three positive expected outcomes make it probably safe to say Campbell made the right decisions for his team. I’m confident that if one of the first two plays is a conversion, there isn’t as much criticism being thrown at the Lions’ head man.

However, there are two decisions I think are deserving of some questioning. The first was the decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-3 from the 49ers’ 3-yard line with seven seconds left in the second quarter with the Lions leading 21-7. Campbell mentioned that he was close to going for it but ultimately decided to turn a two-score game into a three-score game. Unfortunately for Campbell, this decision cost the Lions 4.4 percent in win probability. For context, that was the second-worst fourth-down decision in the playoffs this year only to Campbell electing to punt up 24-23 in the fourth quarter on fourth-and-4 against the Los Angeles Rams in the wild-card round.

Campbell’s other whiff came on the play before Williams’ touchdown late in the fourth quarter — the third-and-goal run by David Montgomery with 1:05 left in the game. This decision probably falls on offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s shoulders as well as Campbell’s. Regardless of who is more to blame, it was a total blunder.

The Lions had found some success catching the 49ers off-guard with runs in passing situations earlier in the game, but this was not the time to risk losing a timeout. And that’s exactly what happened. Montgomery was stuffed for a 2-yard loss, forcing Detroit to burn one of their three timeouts. If Detroit had kept all three, there’s a chance they could have gotten the ball back after forcing the 49ers to punt on an ensuing possession.

The decision, per rbsdm.com, cost the Lions 4.7% in win probability. Of course, the Lions’ odds to win the game before third down were just nine percent, so it may not have mattered in the end, but costing yourself more than half of your win probability on one play cannot happen. Campbell might not have any regrets about some of his other decisions Sunday night, but I’m confident he regrets running the ball there.

So while I do think Campbell should be criticized for his decision-making in the NFC Championship Game, I think it should be for decisions to take the points before the half and for running the ball when keeping as much time on the clock as possible was vitally important.

While researching this story, I became curious to see which coaches, during the 2023-24 playoffs, put their teams in the best position to succeed with their fourth-down decisions, as well as the best decisions to go and the worst decisions to kick. Here’s what I found:

2024 NFL playoffs: Fourth down analysis

Team

  

Coach

  

Fourth downs decisions

  

Correct

  

Incorrect

  

Neutral (toss-up)

  

Correct%

  

Win probability added (WPA)

Go-for-it WPA

  

Kick/punt WPA

  

Andy Reid

18

11

2

5

84.6%

29.8%

6.6%

23.2%

Sean McDermott

12

6

0

0

100.0%

25.8%

13.1%

12.7%

Todd Bowles

13

8

3

2

72.7%

20.1%

2.4%

17.7%

Dan Campbell

18

11

4

3

73.3%

17.7%

19.3%

-1.6%

John Harbaugh

14

9

2

3

81.8%

17.2%

6.6%

10.6%

Mike McDaniel

6

2

0

4

100.0%

10.5%

6.8%

3.7%

Matt LaFleur

6

4

1

1

80.0%

9.8%

1.6%

8.2%

Kevin Stefanski

5

3

1

1

75.0%

8.1%

1.3%

6.8%

DeMeco Ryans

10

5

3

2

62.5%

8.0%

0.0%

8.0%

Kyle Shanahan

10

2

2

6

50.0%

7.3%

0.0%

7.3%

Sean McVay

6

3

0

3

100.0%

5.2%

1.3%

3.9%

Mike McCarthy

3

2

1

0

66.7%

3.1%

0.0%

3.1%

Mike Tomlin

4

1

0

3

100.0%

2.4%

0.0%

2.4%

Nick Sirianni

7

1

2

4

33.3%

0.8%

0.20%

0.6%

Best fourth-down decisions to go

1. Buffalo Bills vs. Kansas City Chiefs: fourth-and-3 at midfield, trailing 27-24 with 4:52 in the fourth quarter.
Result: Josh Allen pass short left to Khalil Shakir to the Kansas City 40-yard line for 10 yards.
Win probability: +7.9%

2. Detroit Lions vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: fourth-and-1 on the Tampa Bay 1-yard line, tied 10-10 with 3:48 left in the third quarter.
Result: Craig Reynolds runs up the middle for a 1-yard touchdown.
Win probability: +6.7%

3. Detroit Lions vs. Los Angeles Rams: fourth-and-1 on the Los Angeles 2-yard line, leading 14-10 with 7:12 left in the second quarter.
Result: Jared Goff passes short right to Sam LaPorta for a 2-yard touchdown.
Win probability: +6.7%

4. Miami Dolphins vs. Kansas City Chiefs: fourth-and-1 on the Kanas City 44-yard line, trailing 13-7 with 4:35 left in the second quarter.
Result: Tua Tagovailoa passes incomplete short left to Tyreek Hill.
Win probability: +6.2%

5. Kansas City Chiefs vs. Baltimore Ravens: fourth-and-2 on the Baltimore 41-yard line, tied 0-0 with 9:11 left in the first quarter.
Result: Patrick Mahomes passes short middle to Travis Kelce to the Baltimore 28-yard line for 13 yards.
Win probability: +3.9%

Worst fourth-down decisions to kick

1. Detroit Lions vs. Los Angeles Rams: fourth-and-4 on the Detroit 31-yard line, leading 24-23 with 7:18 left in the fourth quarter.
Result: Jack Fox punts 60 yards to the Los Angeles 9-yard line.
Win probability: -4.5%

2. Detroit Lions vs. San Francisco 49ers: fourth-and-goal on the San Francisco 3-yard line, leading 21-7 with 0:07 left in the second quarter.
Result: Michael Badgley’s 21-yard field goal is good.
Win probability: -4.4%

3. Houston Texans vs. Cleveland Browns: fourth-and-goal on the Cleveland 2-yard line, tied 0-0 with 5:29 left in the first quarter.
Result: Ka’imi Fairbairn’s 21-yard field goal is good.
Win probability: -3.9%

4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Detroit Lions: fourth-and-1 on the Tampa Bay 34-yard line, trailing 10-3 with 9:51 in the second quarter.
Result: Jake Camarda punts 66 yards into the end zone for a touchback.
Win probability: -3.1%

5. Kansas City Chiefs vs. Buffalo Bills: fourth-and-5 on the Buffalo 29-yard line, trailing 3-0 with 4:35 left in the first quarter.
Result: Harrison Butker’s 47-yard field goal is good.
Win probability: -3.1%

(Photo of Campbell: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)





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