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Dan Campbell Isn’t Afraid to Go Down Swinging

Detroit is the NFL’s last winless team at 0-7. But the Lions have been competitive in nearly every game, and Campbell’s leadership has pointed to long-term promise for the franchise.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Dan Campbell does not believe in moral victories.

“You just tell [the players] what I told them in [the locker room]: ‘If this does not continue to sting and burn and taste like you-know-what, then you got a problem. You cannot allow yourself to go numb. You can’t. ’Cause I’m not,’” Campbell said Sunday after the Lions’ seventh loss of the season. “All it does is just piss me off even more. And it just motivates me to want to get out of this mess.”

Hardly anyone outside of Detroit expected much from the Lions in Campbell’s first season, but that hasn’t made unlucky results any easier for the rookie head coach to stomach. As Campbell stepped up to the lectern after Sunday’s 28-19 loss to the Rams—another hard-fought contest ending in defeat—he fought back tears. The Lions fought like hell. They pulled out every stop. They willed the contest to take the shape they wanted. But none of that was enough, just as it hadn’t been in the prior six games.

“Just credit the Rams,” Campbell said. “They’re a good football team and they earned that win. I thought our guys played hard. We just made one too many mistakes.”

The Lions entered Sunday as 16-point underdogs, but found themselves ahead 10-0 in the first quarter thanks to an aggressive game plan that would be used only by a team with nothing to lose. After running back D’Andre Swift caught a screen pass 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage and turned it into a 63-yard touchdown on the game’s opening drive, Detroit ran a surprise onside kick—and recovered it.

When the Lions faced fourth-and-7 from midfield a few plays later, they pulled off another trick: a fake punt. Punter Jack Fox completed a 17-yard pass to corner Bobby Price to convert the fourth down. Detroit scored a field goal to cap the drive.

Detroit even pulled off a second fake punt on its opening drive of the third quarter, when safety C.J. Moore galloped 28 yards. But the effort was wasted when Swift was stopped short on a fourth-and-1 carry to end the drive.

“We felt like the time was right,” Campbell said. “[Special teams coordinator] Dave Fipp did a hell of a job. We talked about it all week and those guys executed the plan perfectly all week. A lot of faith in those guys [to execute].”

Rams coach Sean McVay said that he wasn’t completely surprised by the Lions’ assertiveness, but he was disappointed by his team’s execution. “They made the plays and we didn’t in that phase,” he said, “and it almost changed the outcome of the game.”

Los Angeles had only three offensive possessions in the first half, but scored on each one. Matthew Stafford, facing his former team for the first time since getting traded in January, carved up the Lions defense, completing 28 of 41 passes for 334 yards and three touchdowns. His second score—a 2-yard pass to receiver Cooper Kupp—gave the Rams a 17-13 lead late in the second quarter. But a pair of deep completions from Jared Goff to receiver Kalif Raymond helped set up a field goal to pull Detroit within one point going into halftime.

The Lions’ visit to SoFi Stadium served as Goff’s Inglewood homecoming and Detroit’s first meeting against Stafford. The matchup better highlighted the difference between the two passers and the reasons the Rams made the blockbuster trade nine months ago. Goff went 22-for-36 with 268 yards, one score, and two picks. His average depth of target was 4.3 yards; Stafford’s was 9.3. Goff completed 61 percent of his passes, 4.6 percentage points lower than expected; Stafford completed 68.3 percent of his attempts, 0.7 percentage points higher than expected.

Next Gen Stats
Next Gen Stats

Earlier in the week, McVay praised Stafford, noting that the 33-year-old has been even better than he’d expected. Stafford has allowed the Rams to open up their offense, playing out of more empty sets and executing more run-pass options than Goff ever did in his five seasons. It’s been the opposite story in Detroit. Last Sunday, after the Lions suffered a Week 6 blowout loss to the Bengals, Campbell took a six-second pause before acknowledging that Goff “needs to step up more than he has. ... It’s time to step up. Make some throws. Do some things. But, he needs help.”

The Lions’ game plan took the ball out of Goff’s hands and relied on the team’s backfield of Swift (13 carries, 48 yards) and Jamaal Williams (12 carries, 57 yards). Detroit ate as much clock as possible, but early runs led to too many third downs, many of which the offense failed to convert (the Lions converted only two of their first 10 third-down plays).

But a lack of execution undid the Lions’ efforts. Goff missed a wide-open Swift on third-and-7 at the Rams’ 13-yard line, leading to a field goal. Trailing 25-19 in the fourth quarter, Detroit waged a 15-play, 63-yard drive that chewed nine minutes of clock. The Lions were at L.A.’s 12-yard line facing second-and-10 when Goff, under duress from Aaron Donald, was picked off by Jalen Ramsey on an end zone throw intended for T.J. Hockenson. The Rams responded with a field goal before Goff was intercepted by Nick Scott to end the game.

“I thought [Goff] was good enough to win with, for what we were trying to do,” Campbell said.

“If we would have won this it would have maybe a little bit more of a special meaning to it, but we needed a win,” Goff said. “We still need a win, regardless of who we’re playing. That’s what we’re focused on right now. Unfortunately, we’re 0-7 and need to make something happen here and get on the board. At the same time, though, playing like we did today and having so much positivity happen is good to see, but still not enough.”

Through seven weeks, the Lions are the only winless team in the NFL. However, they have not had the same dysfunction that is typical of other teams vying for the bottom of the league standings. The one-win Texans are trying to trade quarterback Deshaun Watson, who is inactive and facing 22 civil lawsuits for sexual misconduct or sexual assault, as well as an NFL investigation. Jaguars coach Urban Meyer has faced controversy. The one-win Dolphins have been scrutinized for falling well short of high expectations set a season ago. The Jets have struggled to look competitive on a weekly basis and just lost rookie quarterback Zach Wilson for at least two weeks due to a PCL injury. The Lions have no wins, but have avoided dysfunction. They’ve been competitive in nearly every game this season and don’t appear to be totally incompetent.

Efficiency metrics highlight how the Lions have fared in comparison to the league’s one-loss teams through the first third of the season. Detroit ranks as a more efficient squad than each of them, according to Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings, while also sporting a better point differential on a per-game basis than all but one:

Lions vs. One-Loss Teams This Season

Team Record Point Differential Per Game Team DVOA* Offense DVOA* Defense DVOA*
Team Record Point Differential Per Game Team DVOA* Offense DVOA* Defense DVOA*
Lions 0-7 -10.6 26 28 27
Dolphins 1-6 -11.5 28 30 26
Texans 1-6 -15.1 31 31 20
Jaguars 1-5 -9.4 29 24 32
Jets 1-5 -15.9 30 31 20
DVOA ratings through Week 6

Detroit’s current pace would lead to it becoming the first 0-17 squad in NFL history. But there’s strong reason to believe that the Lions will avoid that fate when comparing their efficiency marks against current one-loss teams. If Detroit, which has covered the spread in four out of seven games, was to finish the season winless, it would also become arguably the best team to do so, based on efficiency metrics:

2021 Lions (Through Week 7) vs. Winless and One-Loss Teams Since 2000

Team (Year) Record Point Differential Per Game Team DVOA Offense DVOA Defense DVOA
Team (Year) Record Point Differential Per Game Team DVOA Offense DVOA Defense DVOA
Lions (2021) 0-7 -10.3 26* 28* 27*
Browns (2017) 0-16 -11 32 32 20
Lions (2008) 0-16 -15.5 32 30 31
Jaguars (2020) 1-15 -11.7 31 27 31
Browns (2016) 1-15 -11.8 31 29 32
Rams (2009) 1-15 -16.4 31 32 31
Dolphins (2007) 1-15 -10.6 28 21 32
Panthers (2001) 1-15 -9.8 31 31 23
Chargers (2000) 1-15 -10.7 27 29 9
Lions DVOA ratings listed are through six games.

The Lions lack talent, but not effort. There hasn’t been a decrease in the latter throughout the Lions’ season, even as the losses have piled up. It’s a testament to Campbell, whose squad is adopting an on-field persona similar to their coach.

“I’m frustrated like anyone would be,” Campbell told reporters Monday. “I’m frustrated like our players are, but it also gives me more motivation and driven anger, if you will, to want to make things right and help these guys as much as I can and help this staff. That’s the way I’m cut, man. It makes me want to dig in more, is what it does. Maybe I’m stubborn that way. I told the team this before we ever started the season, but I’m built for adversity. This is what I do. I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it. I’ve done it. I’ve been in the high highs, the low lows, so I’m ready for this. I’m not giving up. I’m not giving up on any of these guys. I’m not listening to the lack-of-talent talk. I don’t buy into that. We’ve got more to give as a staff, these players have more to give as players, and we’re going to find a way to win a game.”

“He cares,” Swift said of Campbell. “He’s trying to get us on the right track to keep going, keep fighting. We can’t go numb to it. We gotta go back and work.”

Football Outsiders currently projects the Lions with the second-highest odds of landing the no. 1 pick in the 2022 NFL draft (the Jets are higher). That doesn’t sound like a bad consolation prize for the fans or the front office, but the current group of players is still determined to ensure that Detroit doesn’t end up with that pick.

“We’re a lot better than our record shows,” Goff said. “Ultimately, in this league that doesn’t matter. It really doesn’t. I can say that as long as I want, but until we win some games, we can’t really prove it. I do believe we are a lot better than 0-7. And we have had some chances to win this year and just ultimately haven’t done it. But with that being said, teams that do win games in this league win games for a reason. And vice versa.”

“I do think we have the right type of guys,” Campbell said. “So as long as they continue to hate this taste, they’ll come back to work and be ready to go. They will. And I think we got the right type of guys to do that. I do.”