INGLEWOOD, Calif. — There were few doubts, if any, as to what Dan Campbell would do when decision-time arrived.
In many ways, it’s a sign of the identity Campbell has developed, and who he has become in the NFL. No longer the butt of various kneecap jokes, no longer just a caricature of a football guy, no longer the happy-go-lucky coach without proof of concept — Campbell is the heart and soul of a Detroit Lions team that wakes up each Sunday expecting to hear an impassioned victory speech from its head coach in the evening.
Campbell — aggressive in nature while offering few apologies for his tendencies — has developed a group that has adopted his mentality and appreciates it. They know not every coach would make the decisions Campbell so often does, telling them to go get it. It gives them confidence, players say, and that confidence derives from Campbell’s trust in them.
When it all works together, it manifests in ways much like Sunday.
“I wanted to finish with the ball in our hands,” Campbell said, moments after his offense executed a game-winning drive to perfection to knock off the Los Angeles Chargers 41-38.
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Those decisions are part of the Dan Campbell Experience. He’s always been aggressive. Known to break out a fake punt or steal a possession when the opposition least expects it, Campbell’s players have come to expect that he’ll trust them to succeed in crucial moments. But there have been other times when Campbell has second-guessed the basic principles that got him this far.
Last year’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings in Week 3 is a perfect example. Up 24-21, facing a fourth-and-4 from the Minnesota 36 with 1:14 to go, Campbell opted to kick a field goal rather than try to win the game with a first-down conversion. A field goal would’ve kept it a one-score game, with Minnesota guaranteed to receive the ball back with a chance to win. A first down would have allowed the Lions to run out the clock. Campbell attempted the kick, the Lions missed and Minnesota marched down the field and won.
That loss ate away at Campbell. Coaches so often remember the lows after losses more than the highs of a win. Best believe he still remembers that one.
“I just — I hate it,” Campbell said at the time. “I just hate the decision. I wish I would’ve put it back in their hands offensively and so be it. I just wish I would’ve done that.”
These days, though, Campbell is a wiser man. He’s also more secure in his decisions. He’s seen what works and what doesn’t. There was some trial and error earlier in his Lions tenure, as he navigated rosters light on talent. But as Campbell’s confidence as a head coach has grown, so too has the confidence of his players. They’ve elevated one another. And they’re not surprised when their head coach puts them in positions to win games like he did Sunday evening.
“I was excited,” wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said of the Lions’ fourth-down call late in the game. “I even gave Campbell a high-five coming off the sideline. I mean, I don’t know how many coaches are gonna go for that on that situation, so, I mean, hats off to him.”
That’s what good teams do pic.twitter.com/7vWz2b4diF
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) November 13, 2023
Campbell’s aggression paid off in more ways than one Sunday. On a drive late in the first quarter, the Lions went for it on fourth down on three separate occasions. The first, a halfback draw up the middle for 6 yards when the offense needed 4 — as the offensive line imposed its will. Another, as quarterback Jared Goff handed off to St. Brown for a first down. And again on a fourth-and-goal from the 1, as a Goff pass fell incomplete for a turnover on downs.
Rather than letting the failed attempt cloud his judgment and get away from who he is, Campbell was right back to his aggressive ways when he found himself in the same scenario on Detroit’s next possession. That fourth-and-goal from the 1 resulted in a Jahmyr Gibbs touchdown run. A 4-point gain in a game the Lions won by 3.
But perhaps the best example of Campbell’s fingerprints on this Lions team came in the fourth quarter. A Lions defense begging for a stop couldn’t get one. The Chargers had scored touchdowns on their previous five possessions, including a game-tying touchdown from quarterback Justin Herbert to wide receiver Keenan Allen at 38 apiece with 3:34 to go.
On a day when defense was optional, it certainly felt like the team with the ball last would win. Campbell made sure that team would be his.
Facing a fourth-and-2 from the Chargers 26, tied at 38 with 1:42 to go, Campbell could’ve simply taken the field goal and a 3-point lead. But he wanted more. He didn’t want to leave the game to chance. He wanted to win it. Right then and there.
As the broadcast camera panned, there was Goff in the huddle, passing along the play call to the other 10 Lions ahead of a do-or-die moment. There were Herbert and Allen, helmets off, hands tucked into their shoulder pads, watching from the opposing sideline and waiting for their chance to win it. And then, there was Campbell — chomping away, waiting for his team to end any hope of that.
The Lions did just that.
The Lions had to have the first down and they got it
— NFL (@NFL) November 13, 2023
The successful first-down conversion from Goff to tight end Sam LaPorta kept the Lions offense on the field and, more importantly, the Chargers’ offense off of it. After L.A. called its final timeout, the Lions were able to run the clock down to two seconds, setting up a game-winning, 41-yard field goal attempt from Riley Patterson.
The stars aligned for the finish Campbell envisioned. Patterson did his job bringing it to life.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) November 13, 2023
The Lions were 4-of-5 on fourth downs in this one. The aggression was something Campbell felt was needed when the week began, and even more so as the game played out and his defense didn’t have it. Earlier in the week, he informed his players they would be aggressive in those situations. He prepared them for the moment, spent time on them in practice and watched them execute when it mattered most.
“We want to make him right,” Goff said. “And it gets us a little bit more motivation to make things work. He trusts us, he’s showing us he has full faith in us to make it work in a scenario that, maybe, the odds are stacked against us in some way and he’s saying, ‘No, they’re not.’ He trusts us and lets us go to work.”
“It just makes us more confident as players, you know?” offensive tackle Taylor Decker said. “When your coach believes in you and you know that he believes in you — whatever the analytics or the percentages say — he’s like, ‘No, we’re gonna go out there and we’re going to win this game.’ And we love that.”
Those are words of a team that has the utmost confidence in its head coach, because of the confidence he instills in them. Don’t underestimate the power of talent and trust working in tandem together. Now that Campbell has a roster capable of coming through, you’re seeing the results, and seeing a head coach grow into his own in real time. His Lions are now 7-2, maintaining a first-place lead in the NFC North, holding on to the NFC’s No. 2 seed through 10 weeks. Campbell has them eyeing a home playoff game and perhaps this franchise’s first division title in 30 years.
When you see games like Sunday, where his decisions lead directly to wins, it’s hard not to envision him as the eventual winner of Coach of the Year.
But in the meantime, he’ll take each win as it comes, amid a season that’s shaping up to be special.
(Photo: Harry How / Getty Images)
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