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Dan Campbell Can’t Help Himself

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - DECEMBER 30: Head coach Dan Campbell of the Detroit Lions reacts to a penalty during a two point conversion attempt against the Dallas Cowboys during the fourth quarter in the game at AT&T Stadium on December 30, 2023 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

Feel no pity for Dan Campbell. He hit on 17 and drew a deuce, then he hit on 19 and drew an ace, so he did what every meathead in every highway-side casino around the world does when he gets a message from the house and decides instead to slap in the ear buds—he hit on 20, too. Don't get us wrong; watching someone else puke all over the final hand of the night is always top-level entertainment.

Campbell was that guy last night because he has a persona he has to uphold. As the coach of the long-tedious Detroit Lions, his first job three seasons ago was to show the players he was willing to take zany chances because he believed in them when nobody else would. Then after making a three-win team a nine-win team, he did it again because he had an investment in their hearts and kneecaps. And now he's pot-committed to the act so much that with their best season since the 1950s staring them in the helmet, he became the lovable guy who you'd watch do anything as long as you could leave before the end so you aren't the poor bastard who has to spend the night in the emergency room waiting area.

The Lions were in Dallas to play the 10-5 Cowboys in a game oodled with postseason implications, and Campbell's Battlin' Kneebiters hung in through a game they could never really get a firm grip on, but never let the Cowboys take ownership of, either. Long story short, the Cowboys took a 20-13 lead with 1:41 left after a 43-yard chipshot by ATM-with-feet Brandon Aubrey. Dallas's entire game plan of CeeDee Lamb should have earned the Cowboys five touchdowns by himself, but they needed Aubrey to give them desperation elbow room and left Campbell 101 seconds and no timeouts to cheat the system. For a man who successfully ran a fake punt on a fourth-and-2 from his own 28 in the first half, Campbell had 75 yards to go, and a team driven by his belief in God's lips being planted right on his forehead.

So of course it worked. Jared Goff threw nine passes, five of them completions to Sam LaPorta and Amon-Ra St. Brown, and three spikes to stretch the clock between those plays. The last, an 11-yard touchdown to St. Brown, pulled them to 20-19 with 23 seconds to play. A PAT would send the game to overtime, but to Campbell that choice was for candies, so he decided not just to go for the two-point conversion but do it by throwing to left tackle Taylor Decker, his 11th-best pass receiver. And of course it worked. Campbell hit on 17 and pulled it off. Coach Of The Year balloting is now closed.

Only Decker might or might not have told referee Brad Allen he was an eligible receiver, and Campbell might have outsmarted everyone including the officials, and thus himself.

Even though Campbell pitched a blue norther at Allen, claiming that Allen confused Decker for extra offensive lineman Dan Skipper, he still had another crack at it, and because he was still Dan Campbell, he decided to go for two again, this time from the seven-yard line instead of the two. Hitting on 19, as it was. This time, Goff's pass to St. Brown failed, but this time Dallas's Micah Parsons lined up with his head in the neutral zone because Parsons decided as so many players do that the line of scrimmage is only a suggestion. The Lions got yet a THIRD crack at it, and Campbell figured what every bad gambler concludes after a bad beat: the dealer OWES him one, even though the dealer in this case just paid off when Parsons was detected lining up incorrectly.

So now, as the universe shouted as one for him to kick the extra point to tie the game and get off this hamster wheel to hell, Campbell sent Goff out yet again to find the win a third time. And you know how that ended because nobody is talking this morning about the Lions' amazing win and how they are for the moment the top seed in the entire NFC. Campbell's unerring faith in the joy of the long odds kicked him and the Lions straight in the groin, and among the happiest people on earth is Parsons, who didn't end up being Kadarius Toney after all.

And did Campbell learn from this endless fate-cheating? No, he took the failed gambler's way out and decided Allen was to blame when he declared that Decker didn't report, and wadded up the referee's report in disgust, the way it's the dealer's fault when you bust. Not that we want Campbell to change at all—his cavalier attitude toward the percentages makes him easily the most enjoyable tactician the league has produced since Don Coryell. We want him to do this sort of stuff forever, for the good of a nation that desperately needs all the Campbell he can give us.

But like we said, some of the fun is in telling him that sometimes he needs to be willing to take a hint—the galactic pixies didn't want him to go for two, kept telling him that very thing, and yet he got this one hilariously, spectacularly, jut-jawed wrong anyone because he's gotta be him. In sum, he Campbell'd the hell out of it, and we will remember him well when he gets fired in three years for hitting on 21.

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