Fans of the Detroit Lions are used to feeling disappointment at the end of the football season. But this year was much different. The possibilities of the final game made the disappointment harder to swallow.
The Lions lost the NFC Championship Game to the San Francisco 49ers, 34-31 last Sunday. A 17-point lead went poof in the second half, and what seemed like a possible trip to Las Vegas for Super Bowl 58 became a gut-punching, heartbreaking defeat that left a few puzzling questions.
Why did the Lions only manage to score their only second-half touchdown with less than a minute left in the game? Why did they shun the leg of their placekicker when they had not one, but two chances to add three points to their total after halftime?
Why did Dan Campbell mismanage the clock and his timeouts, and insist on calling two fourth down plays rather than kick those field goals, once with the lead, the other time with a chance to tie the game?
I don’t need to argue that hard to find support for my theory that Campbell made mistakes in the NFC title game. There’s enough debate bouncing across the state of Michigan to handle all that. But, what I suggest now will likely find few allies. And that’s ok. I don’t care.
In the 2003 American League Championship Series, the Boston Red Sox had a lead in Game 7 against the Boston Red Sox. They were four outs away from putting a stake in the hearts of the Yankees. That’s when manager Grady Little ignored every sensible signal that pitcher Pedro Martinez was gassed. The thin righthander, capable of tossing firebolts from his shoulder, was finished, like a prizefighter staggering on the ropes. But Little refused to take his ace off the mound. A few hits here, a few runs later, and the Yankees tied the game. Later in extra-innings, the Yankees walked off on an Aaron Boone home run, winning the pennant, and defeating the Red Sox (again).
Little as rightly criticized, skewered even. What was he thinking? He had a great team. His team had their foes, the favorites, against the wall. His team was on the precipice of winning and advancing to the World Series. Does that sound familiar?
Campbell and the Lions had a 17-point halftime lead. They were outplaying the 49ers in every way. Even when San Francisco sliced the lead to 14, Detroit had the ball in Niners territory facing a 4th and 2. A 46-yard field goal would once again make it a three-score game. But like Grady Little, Dan Campbell rolled the dice, keeping his offense on the field. Like Little, Campbell was wrong, and he lost his gamble.
Later, Campbell allowed his team to run the football inside the five-yard line, and when his running back failed to score, he had to use a timeout. That decision meant Detroit would not have all their TO’s to use on defense, and get the football back down three.
It wasn’t the first time Campbell has gambled. Often he was correct, and his gutsy decisions helped his team get deep in the playoffs. But, it also wasn’t the first time Campbell was wrong. However, it was the first time he did it in such a monumental game.
In the playoff win against Tampa Bay, Campbell didn’t instruct his time properly in managing the clock on their final possession. As a result the Bucs could have gotten the football back, when that wasn’t necessary. Fortunately, for some insane reason, Tampa Bay head coach Todd Bowles didn’t use his two timeouts. Maybe he attended the Campbell School of Time Management.
The Lions have a coveted offensive coordinator named Ben Johnson. By most accounts, Johnson will be named head coach of the Washington Commanders this week. But that’s not the team he should be coaching.
If the Lions really want to show how much they’ve changed, if this franchise really wants to extinguish “SOL” once and for all, if the front office truly wishes to cement the notion that they are genius, they will keep Johnson. How, do you ask?
Fire Campbell and make Johnson head coach.
First, I understand this will not happen. No way, no how. The only people on this planet who would actually pull of such a remarkably clever move like this are dead: former Raiders owner Al Davis; and former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Both of those men understood that sentimentality has no place in the cut-throat business of professional sports. That’s why both Davis and Steinbrenner were also often criticized.
Campbell may win NFL Coach of the Year. But, like Little, the Lions HC is not the man who will win a championship for his team. He’s the guy before the guy. And Sheila Ford Hamp needs someone to make that clear. Whether it’s her own deductions, or if its Brad Holmes, the celebrated general manager.
Why should the Lions assume Johnson has to leave? Yes, he’s earned a head coaching position. Yes, Johnson’s offensive genius means he’ll command a big contract as THE MAN for an NFL team. But, if Hamp stepped up, made an unpopular (but necessary) decision and shelved Campbell, she and her team could let Johnson move up to the head position. It’s win-win-win.
Johnson as head coach means the Lions keep his offensive leadership (WIn #1). It means they get a head coach who has a fresh, young, new generational X’s and O’s approach (Win #2), and it means they rid themselves of Campbell, who like it or not, is terrible at understanding how to manage the clock and pivotal decisions in games.
Dan Campbell is a likable guy. He’s even a great leader of men. But, he is miscast as a head coach. He’s more of a defensive or offensive line coach, or special teams. He even seems like a player at the end of games at the podium: emotional, exhausted, spent from the drain of the game. He’s coaching from his hip, from his gut: pick a body part, as long as it’s not above the neck.
Lions fans should celebrate the just-completed season. There’s a lot to remember, and none of us will forget it. But, let’s face it Lions fans: this team will never win the big game with Dan Campbell’s reckless style of game management. And his best replacement was on the sidelines with him all season.