Dan Campbell Needs to Be Smarter About His Aggressive Play Calling In the Red Zone

Photo credit: Kirthmon F. Dozier (USA TODAY Sports)

Nobody likes the coach that punts on 4th and 1 from the opponent’s 38-yard line. Most fans prefer their leaders to err on the side of aggressiveness as John Harbaugh did earlier in the year when the Baltimore Ravens went for it on 4th and 1 in their own territory to seal up their victory against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Dan Campbell and the Detroit Lions need to find a happy medium of when to be aggressive and when to make the smarter, more conservative choice.

The red zone was a funnel into the darkest depths for the Lions in their Week 4 matchup against the Chicago Bears, and it started with the play calling. Detroit made it to the red zone on their first three possessions and came away with zero points. That’s unheard of in the NFL. Most coaches would be put under the microscope for such a disastrous result, but Campbell is in his first year, so he gets a slight pass.

On the first possession, there was a miscommunication between quarterback Jared Goff and center Frank Ragnow. As Goff approached the line to adjust the protection or the play call, Ragnow snapped the ball, which promptly bounced off the shoulder of Goff, across the line of scrimmage, and right into the lap of Bears defensive lineman Bilal Nichols. As agitating as it was, those things happen. Not specifically such a slapstick fumble, but turnovers in the red zone in general.

Trailing 14-0 on their next drive, the Lions marched right back down into the red zone. On a 4th and Goal from the five-yard line, Campbell decided to roll the dice and go for it. Goff’s pass, intended for D’Andre Swift, was deflected away.

Going for it would’ve made much more sense if it were 4th and Goal at the one- or two-yard line. Sure, it’s easy to second-guess these calls in hindsight, but 4th and Goal at the five, when the field is super condensed, and you aren’t close enough to run, it is highly questionable. The Bears knew the Lions were far enough back that there was no chance they’d run the ball, so it immediately cut the playbook in half.

Kicking the field goal in that spot will not get Lions fans cheering and sending high-fives around the room. Given their field position in a game they were losing 14-0, getting the three points seemed to be objectively the right call.

After the game, per the team’s website, Campbell commented on the red zone scenarios and the aggressive nature of his calls.

“We need a lot of third-down work and we need a lot of red zone work,” head coach Dan Campbell said after the game. “That’s what we’re going to start focusing on. We need to do a ton of work down there. We need some of these third downs, fourth downs, got to have it in the red zone.”

When asked if he regretted any of the fourth-down calls, Campbell didn’t hesitate with his answer.

“I don’t regret any of them but the last one at the end, here’s what I would have done, I wish we would have huddled up and that’s on me.”

Goff seemed to echo those sentiments from his head coach.

“We want to go for it if we’re in a position to go for it,” Goff said. “You always want the coach to have that confidence in you guys. Damn right we better start making them if we’re going to keep going.”

It’s great that these two are on the same page, and nobody will fault a head coach for trusting his guys, but it should be adjusted for the context of each individual game — within reason. The Lions shouldn’t just keep firing from the hip and going for it sporadically just because that’s the personality their head coach has. In the fourth quarter, it reared its ugly head once again.

The Lions trailed Chicago 24-14 with 4:15 left. I’m no math major, but it’s not hard to figure out that a field goal and a touchdown tie the game up. Detroit was faced with a 4th and 1 from the Chicago eight-yard line and decided to roll the dice once again.

A Goff pass to the far sideline fell incomplete and sank any hope the Lions had of making a comeback.

It’s easy to sit on the couch and suggest kicking the field goal in that spot. But really, why would you not kick the field there, make it a one-score game, and put all the pressure back on the Bears? A touchdown would’ve been phenomenal, but it was far from a sure thing.

It may sound odd, but that fourth-down decision still made some sense. The percentages are much higher on a fourth-and-one from the eight than the earlier 4th and Goal from the five. Still, it had to leave Lions fans scratching their head.

This isn’t a plea for Campbell to bottle things up and be conservative. Aggressive play-callers need to be embraced in a league that sometimes relies too much on data. Campbell just needs to better manage time and context.

Detroit had gotten to the red zone three times before and left with zero points before Campbell decided to go for it again late in the fourth quarter. Up to that point, nothing instilled confidence that the Lions would convert, even though they just needed a yard.

Managing that balance and finding that happy medium will be critical for the Lions moving forward.

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