Dan Campbell and the Detroit Lions had plenty of opportunities to catapult in front of the Atlanta Falcons and claim their third win of the season. Instead, they endured another gut-wrenching loss.
The Lions crept even closer to an NFL record for fourth-down attempts in a season during Sunday’s affair. They’ve attempted 36, and the record is 39, set by the New England Patriots in 1995. But it’s the fourth down they didn’t go for that is causing many to scratch their heads.
Detroit took control of the rock after yielding a touchdown to the Falcons with 13 minutes left. The Lions trailed 20-13 at the time. A long, grueling, snail-paced drive that ended in puzzling fashion ensued.
The Lions would use 10:26 of the game clock as they methodically drove down the field against a Falcons defense that couldn’t buy a stop on the drive. In the lead-up to the drive’s conclusion, the Lions had already converted two fourth downs. They went 3/4 in that department for the game. Campbell opted to kick the field goal facing a 4th and 5 from the Atlanta eight-yard line with 2:42 to go. In an ongoing battle all year long between the analytics side and the anti-analytics group, the numbers supported the Lions going for it when Campbell opted to kick the field goal instead.
Per Seth Walder of ESPN analytics, the evidence was in the numbers.
“Dan Campbell made a huge error when he elected to attempt a field goal on fourth-and-five from the Falcons’ eight-yard line with 2:42 left and down seven points, according to ESPN’s win probability model. WP go: 19.7% WP kick: 11.3% Needed a 13% chance of conversion to justify going for it. We estimated conversion probability at 43%.”
Even for those who don’t buy into the analytics, or at least take them with a grain of salt, kicking a field goal in that spot made little sense. Detroit needed a touchdown either way. Kicking the field goal turned it into a scenario where the Lions could win it with a touchdown if they saw the ball again, and they did get it back. But it didn’t change the overall fact that Detroit still needed a touchdown.
The three-yard loss on third down may have persuaded Campbell to kick the field goal, but it didn’t change the fact that it wasn’t the right call in that spot. It was somewhat shocking for a coach who has been so aggressive going for it and rolling the dice to see him not go for it late in that spot. The head coach for the Lions talked about the trust he has in his guys in going for it so many times this year.
“When you feel like you have trust in your players or in the play or where the game’s at, I don’t know, it feels right. … I think you’ve got to feel good about your players and the plan, and if you do, I think you go for it. And I want to send a message that we’re playing to win and we’re not playing to lose and there’s a time to be conservative and there’s a time to be aggressive. And so, it’s just I think a little more in my nature to roll the dice if you will. But I still feel like it’s a calculated risk.”
Campbell has often said all the right things this year. He has a roster severely lacking top-end talent, but he’s mostly pushed the right buttons. In this case, it would’ve been wise to roll those dice one more time. Detroit still had another chance.
The Lions kicked the field goal to make it 20-16 and, three plays later, the defense recovered a fumble in Falcons territory before the two-minute warning. The stage was set for Tim Boyle. But it wasn’t meant to be. He threw an interception from first-and-goal at the nine with half a minute to go. In an alternate situation, they may not have needed the touchdown.
If Detroit had gone for it on that 4th and 5 and not gotten it, they would’ve needed the late touchdown to tie the game. Had they converted it and gotten into the end zone, the fumble they ended up forcing would’ve put them in a spot where all they needed was a field goal to leapfrog in front of Atlanta with a chance for their third win of the season.
Hindsight makes it easy to question everything that goes wrong. However, this wasn’t one of those decisions. It made little sense when the field goal unit trotted out onto the field. Detroit coming up short gave way to the opportunity to bring it to the spotlight.
Dan Campbell shouldn’t be buried for this one decision. It’s possible the Lions wouldn’t have converted anyways. However, given that he’s already on pace to call more fourth-down conversion attempts in league history, this was an instance in which they definitely should’ve dialed it up.