Booger McFarland discussing Dan Campbell's fourth-down gambles. Booger McFarland discussing Dan Campbell’s fourth-down gambles. (Awful Announcing on Twitter.)

When aggressive coaching decisions such as going for it on fourth down don’t work out, criticism from media is sure to follow. And that’s even more true when the game result doesn’t go the way of the team making those calls, with the San Francisco 49ers’ 34-31 comeback win against the Detroit Lions in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game the latest example there.

In the wake of that, Detroit head coach Dan Campbell’s two unsuccessful fourth-down gambles in field goal range came under scrutiny. And ESPN NFL analyst Booger McFarland’s comments on NFL Primetime were a prominent example of that. There, McFarland said Campbell “got outcoached severely in the second half,” and said his team’s play on the day should have factored in more, starting with criticism of the third-quarter decision to go for it on fourth-and-two from the San Francisco 28:

“The Lions were controlling the football game, it’s 24-10. They got fourth down, they’ve got the opportunity to kick a field goal and go up three scores, but for whatever reason, Dan Campbell said, ‘You know what, I want to roll the dice, I want to go for it.’ The game changed right here.”

McFarland then narrates the highlights of the 49ers’ comeback after that. He then takes issue with another fourth-down gamble, on fourth and three from the San Francisco 30 down 27-24 in the fourth quarter.

“They have an opportunity right here at 27-24, the Lions do, to go for a field goal and tie the football game. They turned it down. I thought Dan Campbell got outcoached severely in the second half. And I truly understand Dan Campbell loves to go for it on fourth down. But at some point, you have to understand how your team’s playing and what’s going on, and the momentum was clearly with the 49ers.

“And twice, Dan Campbell decided to not go for field goals and go for it and it backfired on his team. You heard Nick Bosa after the game, what turned the game around, when they went for it on fourth down and didn’t make it. And everybody’s gonna talk about analytics, and I truly understand that, but at sometime you have to play the game that day and understand how your team is playing. That’s when the game turned.”

McFarland’s argument here is more nuanced than the recent anti-analytics rant from his ESPN colleague Michael Wilbon, which took issue with both the math on going for two down eight without really analyzing it and with the wider field of analytics in general. Rather than bash the whole field, McFarland is specifically arguing for field goal attempts rather than fourth-down gambles in these particular situations. And that’s not unreasonable, although field goal attempts are far from sure things as well.

But there is logic (and numbers, albeit slight) to this approach from Campbell’s side as well, and it’s not clear that gambles not working out equals “outcoached.” Campbell discussed some of his reasoning after the game, and said he has no plans to change his aggressiveness on these plays.

It’s notable that Campbell also got support there from Lions’ quarterback Jared Goff.

“I love it. We’ve got to convert … He believes in us. He believes in us. I don’t know what the numbers are, but we had a lot of big-time conversions this year that changed games.”

They certainly did. But those moves didn’t work out this time. That’s led to a lot of criticism, and McFarland’s “outcoached” take there is one particularly notable case in point. But it’s also led to defenses of Campbell’s aggressiveness, such as the one above from Goff. And regardless of which side viewers agree with, these gambles certainly did provide something for the NFL world to talk about.

[Awful Announcing on Twitter]

About Andrew Bucholtz

Andrew Bucholtz has been covering sports media for Awful Announcing since 2012. He is also a staff writer for The Comeback. His previous work includes time at Yahoo! Sports Canada and Black Press.