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Dan Campbell Is Absolutely Going For It

Lions OT Penei Sewell flying fairly gracefully through the air after making a reception against the Vikings in a Detroit win.
Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Dan Campbell will ultimately fail doing the wacky things he does. One of the essential cruelties of the National Football League is found in the roadside skeletons of those who lean into the wacky, and Campbell is the active coach most attracted to the red nose and the floppy shoes.

But when the wacky turns to inspired, as it did yet again Sunday in Detroit's 34-23 victory over Minnesota, one is coerced into wanting the man to succeed before the law of big numbers catches up and opens the umbrella of competitive death inside his nostrils. In other words, a man who knows that his team needs to prolong a late drive in a one-score game against a divisional rival and then proceeds to seize upon a tackle-eligible pass as the best path to that result should have angels looking after his oft-exposed hinder. When the luck runs bad, it will run bad forever. Until then, though, we will have the image of Penei Sewell generating YAC.

If that were the only thing Campbell did—to reiterate, “that” being “running a pass play from Jared Goff to his right tackle on a third-and-7 from the Viking 41 inside two minutes to assure a game-sealing field goal”—it would be cute, if a bit show-offy. After all, Sewell went in motion across the field before catching the pass, a tackle-eligible play without the need to actually play the tackle at the tackle position. Because, well, why the hell not? You're up eight, it's the two-minute warning, and all you need at the minimum is to hold a 10-win team with your own generous-to-a-fault defense. On one hand, life is for the living, so you might as well crack open a beer and declare it screw-it-let's-do-something-fun o’clock. On the other, it's a bad idea 13 times out of eight. It was so obviously a bad idea, in fact, that it seems inevitable in retrospect that it would work as memorably as it did.

And after the game, his analysis of the play was properly Campbellian: "He could be a Hall of Fame tight end if he wanted to lose some weight." Yeah, it's being shaped like a tackle and doing a tackle's job that's preventing him from achieving his destiny as Travis Kelce. This, somehow, is nothing new for Campbell, a man whose sentence structure and logical trains of thought are like a Scattergories game designed by Dr. Seuss, and whose team was always reliably weird before it became maybe-possibly good. And what does he care? He doesn't work for you. He works for a lady who hired him and seems to like the crosscut of his jib. He's on perpetual scholarship with a major in goofy.

But this bit of puckish tackle-based trickeration came well after Campbell's far more brazen play call, a fake punt on fourth-and-eight from the Detroit 26 early in the third quarter. Backup safety/up-man on punt blocking C.J. Moore took the direct snap and broke out for 42 yards to set up the Lions' third touchdown and widen a lead they never relinquished. The only thing that ruined the vibe was Jarren Williams's subsequent taunting penalty because, well, these are still the Lions.

Then again, Moore got the 42 yards because these are also the Lions. It is hard to imagine a future in which they are coached by Campbell and behave any less like this. This is him, a man who calls plays as if he believes that percentages are for weenies and analytics are for candies, but who also trusts his island-of-misfit-toys roster without qualification. Campbell applies one standard for his special moments of whimsy, and it is "Can I make the coach on the other side foul himself in exasperation? If the answer is no, I'll do it anyway because at some point he will, and then I will win the game at trouser level."

In any event, the Lions won, 34-23, their fifth win in six games after a 1-6 start, and are now within an onside kick by a peg-legged long snapper of a playoff berth in the cloddish NFC. They may just be another 6-7 team in the NFL, but they have something no other mediocre team does, which is a coach who hits on 17 and splits sevens while windmilling scotch-and-vodka shooters and telling knock-knock jokes to the cocktail waitress. You'd think they'd be hammered if they did reach the playoffs, but they just embarrassed the Vikings and the Cowboys had to sell their souls on to squeak past Houston at home. Anything is possible for a man who sends a 335-pound man in motion and calls fake punts up seven against the division leader.

Of all the fucks in the NFL this year, we know that Dan Campbell has given none of them, and that makes him appealing in ways that no other coach dares emulate. Eventually it will all explode, because that's how the percentages got to be the percentages. But until that sad day happens, Campbell will continue to go all-in with nine-seven offsuit, and light his next cigar with his last highway flare. Until further notice, that's who he is. Until it stops working, it works.

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