Dan Campbell was a risk-taker in the first half of the season. Lately he's been anything but. In two games since taking over play-calling duties from Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, Campbell has played it safe -- both in his decision-making and his game-planning. The result on Sunday was a 13-10 loss to the Browns in which Detroit rarely stretched the field and never entered the red zone.
With backup QB Tim Boyle making his first career start on a wet day in Cleveland, the Lions mustered a measly 77 yards through the air. It was the same story with an injured Jared Goff last week in Pittsburgh. Detroit's passing attack was already one of the worst in the league over the first eight games of the season, averaging just 6.5 yards per attempt. They're down to 4.0 yards per attempt in the last two games, 3.0 yards per attempt not counting overtime against the Steelers.
"Look, I get it. I’m sure there are a lot of people that question it and think that I was too conservative," Campbell said Sunday. "Maybe I ought to throw it a lot more, but I’m just not ready to do that with where we are here. Last week was a certain situation. This week was, too. I think you have to go where the game takes you. We have plenty of ammo in there, but you also have to be careful. You have to be smart. How do you give yourself the best chance to win at the end, when you’re in it?
"I just felt like the right thing to do was try to run it a little bit and take a little stress off of Tim, and get him going. Look, it’s no secret that we need to be better in the pass game.”
The Lions took one deep shot against the Browns. Boyle was picked off targeting Josh Reynolds. Campbell said he was wary of Cleveland's edge rushing duo of Myles Garrett and Jadeveon Clowney, especially as things tightened up late in the game. So the Lions kept the ball on the ground, where they averaged over seven yards per carry, rather than open up Boyle to a potentially costly turnover.
"I just felt like that’s the way I needed to play that game," Campbell said. "You don’t want to go there until you have to. When (our) defense is playing as good as they were playing, I didn’t want to do it.”
The play-calling was one thing. The decision-making was another. Campbell hasn't feared fourth down all season long. But when the Lions faced fourth and 1 from Cleveland's 26-yard line trailing by a touchdown with nine minutes to play, Campbell opted for the field goal. It was a wasted opportunity after the Lions had taken over on the Browns' 34 following an interception. Campbell called it a 'tough' decision that was consistent with his plan.
“We talked about it, but I told myself the night before to be smart. Hang in there. If we play this game the right way like last week, we’re going to have an opportunity to get it back. Play smart. Don’t put ourselves in a bind. I was close, but then I chose to kick a field goal," Campbell said. "I felt good about our defense.”
On the Lions' next drive, Campbell backed down again. This time it was play-calling and decision-making together. First, Campbell called for a draw to D'Andre Swift on 3rd and 14 from Detroit's 36, trailing by three with a little over three minutes to play. It gained five yards and took a precious 35 seconds off the clock. On the next play, 4th and 9 with 2:36 to go, Campbell punted. The Lions never got the ball again.
"The 4th and 9 wasn’t (a hard decision), just because I wanted to be smart with what we were doing," Campbell said. "When you’re defense is playing like that, you want to be mindful of being smart with your quarterback, yet still having a chance to win. I felt like it was the right thing to do. I thought we’d get that ball back.”
Nick Chubb made sure they didn't. He converted a key third down coming out of the two-minute warning with an 11-yard run, then sealed the game with another third-down conversion four plays later. And that was that. Campbell's gambles were fun while they lasted.