In Dan Campbell's first season as head coach, the Detroit Lions went for it on fourth down a single-season NFL record 41 times. Last season, they went for it on fourth down 37 more times. The Lions ran seven fake punts over that two-season span too, succeeding six times.
The Lions have high expectations this season, so it was going to be interesting to see if that changed Campbell's aggressiveness. We got that answer very early in the season opener against the Chiefs, when the Lions faced a 4th-and-2 from their own 17-yard line. A punt was the easy assumption, since it's too early to offer up an aggressive call that could give the defending champions momentum.
But as we know, not so fast.
A fake punt. Inside your own 20-yard line, not even six minutes into a huge game. A linebacker (!) taking the direct snap for three yards to move the chains. Credit to Campbell, in concert with special teams coach Dave Fipp, for sensing a moment and not fearing failure. The Lions would go on to score a touchdown on the extended drive, and take a 7-0 lead.
Multiple Lions' players remarked about how gutsy the fake punt call was, as a sign of the belief they have in Campbell.
Dan Campbell explains the roots of his aggressiveness
The Lions are now 7-for-8 on fake punts in 35 games under Campbell, with the lone miss a dropped pass that punter Jack Fox (a high school quarterback) put right on the money. Those eight fake punts are double number of fake punts any other team has done during Campbell's two-plus season tenure.
During his press conference on Monday, via MLive, Campbell talked about where his aggressiveness comes from.
"I really believe it was more of an epiphany, if you will, the time that I had at Miami,” Campbell said. “I just remember when I was done there, I had regrets, particularly on special teams, that I didn’t use it more. We had Darren Rizzi, who is (the special teams coordinator) at New Orleans now. He’s an outstanding special teams coach, and I just remember always, you know, it just stuck with me.
“Then certainly going with Sean as a coach (also influenced me). I had been with him as a player, he made everything very clear, we knew exactly when criticals were coming up exactly what we were going to do, how we were going to handle it. Just being under Coach Payton for five years, it gives you a whole different perspective. It did me. So I think that’s really where it comes from.”"
Speaking of Sean Payton, he attempted an onside kick on his very first kickoff as Denver Broncos' head coach on Sunday. He also famously did a successful onside kick, as Saints' head coach of course, to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV. Having spent so much time with Payton, it's no surprise the roots of Campbell's aggressiveness is there.
But Campbell also learned from not being aggressive, at least in terms of fake punts, during his stint as the Dolphins' interim head coach in 2015. And it's also fair to say the old school stigma around going for it on fourth down that existed then does not exist now.
Campbell wasted no time to confirm he will not be taking his foot off the proverbial gas this season. More aggressiveness like last Thursday night is surely coming, which is a great thing.