What do the analytics say about Dan Campbell's 4th down decisions in NFC Championship Game?

Leaving out all the opinions about it, what do the analytics say about Dan Campbell's fourth down decision-making in the NFC Championship Game?

Over the last three seasons, as is consistently and well-documented by now as the team has elevated its status, the Detroit Lions under head coach Dan Campbell has gone for it on fourth down more than any other team. And it's not especially close. More often that not, from an analytical, win probability perspective, it makes sense compared to not going for it

"Analytics" is a trigger word for some people now. And to some extent, Campbell could surely read situations a little better sometimes, rather than just go for it whenever the spirit moves him. But he's not going to change his style, and those who love his aggressive nature can't use hindsight analysis when it doesn't work out. And it didn't work out in the NFC Championship Game.

Campbell didn't drop two catchable passes in the second half, including one on fourth down, like wide receiver Josh Reynolds. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs rarely fumbles, and that happened on Sunday night. The 49ers made adjustments at halftime, and they worked as they erased a 17-point halftime deficit.

After the game, as expected, an emotional Campbell said he has no regrets about going for it on fourth down twice in the second half when a field goal attempt might have made more sense. If those two kicks had been attempted and made by Michael Badgley (hardly a guarantee), then we're talking about the Lions going to the Super Bowl. If even one of those fourth down attempts was successful, the conversation is probably different.

Leaving aside the hindsight analysis and the automatic criticism of Campbell for leaving six potential points off the board in a three-point loss, let's go back to what the analytics said about those two fourth down decisions.

What do the analytics say about Dan Campbell's 4th down decisions in the NFC Championship Game?

With 7:03 left in the third quarter, the Lions had 4th-and-2 from the 49ers' 28-yard line. Jared Goff's pass went incomplete to Reynolds (the aforementioned drop).

ESPN Analytics slightly favored going for it in terms of win probability (90.5 percent to 90.3 percent), basically making it a toss up.

The 4th down decision bot from Ben Baldwin of The Athletic showed similarly, albeit with a projected success rate 16 percent lower for going for it.

With 7:32 left in the game, the Lions had 4th-and-3 from the 49ers' 30-yard line. Goff was forced to roll to his right by some San Francisco pressure, and his pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown never had a real chance to be completed.

ESPN Analytics also had this one as a toss up-39.1 percent win probability to go for it and 38.8 percent win probability for a field goal attempt.

Baldwin's decision bot had a noticeable eight percent win percentage gap in favor of going for it and being successful over a successful field goal attempt. Otherwise, the sheer decision and if either failed was also basically a toss up there.

So based on these two analytic models, and presumably more based on what you'll see on social media without knowing specifics, Campbell basically had what amounted to coin-flip decisions on the two big fourth downs in the second half. The choice he made just didn't work out.

Intrinsically, it's easy to find flaw in Campbell's process and say he should have "taken the points" in at least one, if not both, of these situations. Having a kicker he seemingly wasn't confident in is a separate matter, and in the latter case a 48-yard field goal is not a gimme for any kicker.

Campbell knows he'll face criticism for those fourth down decisions, and of course it has come in droves because they didn't work. But the numbers say he wasn't wrong. And if it's essentially a coin flip decision on a critical fourth down, whether it's Week 5 or the NFC Championship Game, we know what way Campbell is going to go.


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