9:00 AM EST on January 29, 2024
Dan Campbell just met Dan Quinn. Quinn is Campbell's future, starting now, until Campbell comes this way again, if ever.
If this seems too simplistic to explain how Campbell's Detroit Lions turned a three-score lead into a mouthful of ash in the NFC Championship, well, maybe next time he'll take greater account of game situation and less into "Screw it, I believe in my guys, and that indemnifies me from the consequences if this goes sideways."
Because it doesn't. Ask Quinn. He’s the poor bastard who ran up a 28-3 lead on Bill Belichick in Super Bowl Seven Years Ago and decided that eating clock was an undignified way to be a champion. His Atlanta Falcons bed-shat the entire second half and overtime and ended up losing, 34-28. Belichick reinforced his genius, Tom Brady got another long, lingering French kiss from god, and Quinn got fired three years plus five losses later.
Kyle Shanahan was the offensive coordinator on that Atlanta team, and has been eating the three-bean salad on the shit sandwich that was that Super Bowl luncheon ever since. But now, he's almost back to even on that grisly second half seven years ago, when the Falcons vomited up a 25-point lead because they only knew one way to play: one that didn't make the safe play that shortens the odds. The 49ers are now going to the Super Bowl in considerable part because Campbell thought it was too important to be true to himself and his damn-the-torpedoes philosophy. It's why we thought him so charming and pure in a pragmatic and cynical business, and why he has placed himself in position to be a footnote in the game's history. Dan Quinn for the new decade.
Campbell's decision to eschew a field goal on the first possession of the second half that would have preserved the Lions' three-score advantage on the 49ers blew shrapnel and smoke back into his face. A potential 27-10 lead became a 27-24 49ers lead in little more than a quarter's time. Another what-the-hell decision to pass on a tying field goal on fourth-and-3 from the San Francisco 30 resulted seven plays in another San Francisco touchdown and a 34-24 49ers lead in a game that ended 34-31. Well, put it this way: Maybe the Lions lose the game anyway because the 49ers can be a fairly overwhelming force when allowed to be, and maybe the Lions were destined to lose because the 49ers are better in more places.
But Campbell believed what he believed even though no philosophy is absolute, and not every shot from off the green is meant to be aimed at the hole. Campbell's guilt lies in the fact that he didn't give his team its best chance to win the game because he believes too securely in his vision, and as Quinn knows all too well, there may never be a second chance to show what he has learned. Lead with your jaw, get hit in the jaw, and repeat until you learn to slip a punch and throw a decent counter.
Too bad, too, because the Lions were a very game underdog that came close to touching the sky. Having gone 66 years without a championship game, they had become America's sweethearts, Non-Swift Division. They gave the supposedly superior 49ers all they could eat and then a snack. They had in their grasp the game nobody believed they could win, yet in the end San Francisco advanced not because they were a dominant team but because they were deft and clever escapologists.
Either way, their escape gets them a reunion with the even more imposing underdog Kansas City Chiefs, the team that has been standing on Shanahan's chest ever since the Super Bowl four years ago, the one in which the 49ers gave up 21 points in the final seven minutes to spark the Mahomes Era. There are lots of stories to weave around that particular car crash, and they'll all be fun spins around the central topic, "What does Taylor think about Topic X?"
But back in Detroit, Dan Campbell, the hero of the year in a season with more downers than upticks, will get to reflect on how religiously he wants to adhere to his go-far-it-and-damn-the-percentages. He may bring the Lions back to this point again, and he may clear this hurdle and give the town the parade it aches to enjoy. But this was the one that got away, and it won't go away until it is overcome. Ask Kyle Shanahan.
And ask Dan Quinn. The future is not guaranteed, which is why the present matters as much as it does.