The Detroit Lions’ season ended in heartbreaking fashion on Sunday night after they took a 24-7 lead into halftime, but were outscored by 20 points in the second half and eventually lost to the San Francisco 49ers by a final score of 34-31. Detroit made numerous mistakes in the second half, including but not limited to two different fourth-down failures that could have entirely changed the complexion of the game.
On the first, the Lions held a 24-10 lead and faced fourth-and-2 at the 49ers’ 28-yard line. The Lions went for it, Jared Goff stepped up through the pocket and fired a pass to an open Josh Reynolds, but the ball glanced off both of Reynolds’ hands and fell incomplete. The Niners scored a touchdown on their ensuing possession.
Later in the game, the Lions trailed 27-24 and faced fourth-and-3 at the San Francisco 30-yard line. They went for it again, and this time the Niners fooled them by lining up in a man coverage look and instead of dropping into zone, forcing Goff to freelance and try to find an open receiver downfield, only for his pass to fall harmlessly incomplete.
Following the game, Lions coach Dan Campbell explained why he chose to go for it on those fourth-down plays.
“I just felt really good about us converting, and getting our momentum, and not letting them play long ball,” Campbell said. “They were bleeding the clock out. That’s what they do. And I wanted to get the upper hand back. It’s easy hindsight, and I get it. I get that. But I don’t regret those decisions. And that’s hard. You know, it’s hard. Because we didn’t come through, it wasn’t able to work out. But I don’t. I don’t. And I understand the scrutiny I’ll get, and that’s part of the gig, man. But we just … it just didn’t work out.”
And here’s the video of a clearly distraught Campbell giving that answer, courtesy of CBS Sports HQ:
Campbell’s Lions were the NFL’s most aggressive fourth-down team throughout the regular season, going for it 33.9% of the time overall and 50.8% of the time in opponent territory. On fourth-and-3 or less in plus territory, they went for it on 18-of-21 opportunities, converting 15 of them. In the playoffs, there were 2 for 2 in those situations prior to the NFC title game.
Whether or not Campbell should regret the calls is up for debate, but he obviously trusted his team, and trusted his intuition. According to Campbell himself, it wasn’t an analytics-based call to go for it, but a “feel” one. And he had a good feeling because his team had been extremely successful in those situations before. But like he said, it just didn’t work out that way.