Published on February 8, 2024 by Connor Edel  

Dan Campbell has gotten a TON of backlash after he decided to go for it on 4th down twice in the second half. Before I go into all of the numbers on this I think it's important for people to remember that it's easy to disagree or hate the outcome, but that is somewhat uncontrollable. Dan Campbell should be judged on the controllable, which is the decision and the execution. I'd have to imagine that people would think of Dan Campbell as a genius if they converted on those 4th downs and were playing in the Super Bowl.

Anyway...let's look at some numbers.

Lions 4th Down Success

The Detroit Lions had the 2nd most 4th down attempts in the 2023 NFL season with 40. They converted on 4th down 24/40 times (60%) before the 49ers game. They had even greater success when looking at 4th down attempts at 3 yards or less where they converted 87.5% of the time.

Lions' Offense

Looking at their 4th down success rate by individual yards is important as well. Since we are just discussing the 4th&2 and 4th&3 decisions that the Lions offense faced. I will just be focusing on their performance from those distances. 


Lions' 4th and 2 decisions


Lions' 4th and 3 decisions

It's important to note that this is a small sample size. In total, it's only 11 attempts, so we can't place too much weight on these numbers, but it's obvious they have had success in these areas.

League Averages

In 2023, the league average for 4th down conversions was 51%.

Let's look even farther back. The NFL has been a coin flip (50.81%) on 4th downs as a whole, but teams have been converting at a 61.3% rate at 3 yards or less.

League Average Offense 2013-2022

49ers Defense

Now let's see how the 49ers have been at stopping other teams on 4th down. This is a piece of data that I haven't seen many people talk about. Due to there being so many variables in a single football play, I think it's important to break it down as much as possible.

Now, we all know the 49ers defense is loaded with talent on every level and probably has a couple of future Hall of Famers, with guys like Fred Warner and Nick Bosa. They had a top 3 defense in pretty much every category this season. However, their performance on 4th down as a whole is right at 50% which is about league average for defenses. Looking deeper, when you look at their performance on short yardage, it has been below average (28.57%).

The 4th down numbers are inflated because a substantial amount of 4th down attempts have been must-pass situations in the 4th quarter, where the lethal 49ers pass rush can take over.

49ers' Defense

Again, we will just be looking at their success against the 4th&2 and 4th&3 distances. The sample size for the below data is quite small, so we can’t put too much weight on it, but it's interesting to look at it.


49ers' 4th and 2 decisions


49ers' 4th and 3 decisions

Lions Kicking

It's also important to understand the strength of the Lions kicking game. Michael Badgley is certainly not a household name in the kicking world and has even only taken 6 FIELD GOALS in 2023. So, we will use his career-kicking stats from the range 40-49 because the Lions turned down 45 and 47-yard field goal attempts.

Michael Badgley Career Kicking Stats

The Decision

Now that we have all the key data points that go into deciding whether to kick or go. Let's see if Dan Campbell made the mathematically correct decision.

The goal of every sporting event is to win, so what decision would have an impact or change the probability of the Lions winning? Seth Walder broke it down by winning % based on the decision on these 4th downs. I'll be honest I have no idea the formula he used for this, it's something I want to do more research on.

Walder decision

Let's compare each situation. The Lions offense had a 75% success rate on 4th&2 in 2023 and the 49ers defense had a 0% success rate at stopping these downs. This would give the Lions a 75% chance of converting this 4th&2 in the 3rd quarter (this probably isn't super accurate because of the limited sample size.) Choosing to go for this means Dan Campbell thought going up 3 touchdowns (31-10) was more important than going up by 3 scores (27-10). This is interesting considering at that point in the game the 49ers offense hadn't had much success. This 75% chance of converting is right in line with Matt Badgley's 77fg% from 40-49 yards. Going back to Seth Walder's analytics, going up 21 points with 22 minutes left in the game gives the Lions a better chance at winning than potentially going up 17.

On 4th&3 the Lions offense had a 100% conversion rate in 2023 compared to the 49ers defense's 33% stoppage rate. Statistically, this would give the Lions a 66% chance of converting (again, small sample size.) In this situation, Dan Campbell passed on POTENTIALLY (people like to guarantee the field goal would be made) tying the game, and elected to try and go up 31-27. Edward Sutelan at Sporting News put together this visualization detailing what decision statistically gives you better a chance at winning based on field position and down & distance. According to that linked chart, Dan Campbell made the right statistical choice to go for it in both situations.

At the end of the day, the Lions didn't win, and it could be chalked up to a lot of reasons. One of the biggest reasons is one that cannot be understood by numbers, and that is momentum. Momentum often takes control of the game and is a thing that makes sports so awesome. According to many different numbers, Dan Campbell and the Detroit Lions made the right decision to give them the best probability to win, but they didn't win and for that, Dan Campbell will sadly be blamed.


NFL fourth down decisions. Flourish. (n.d.). 

Sutelan, E. (2023, January 14). NFL 4th Down Conversion Chart, explained: Breaking down the NFL’s success rates by distance & more to know. Sporting News. Walder, S. (2024, January 29). Twitter. 


Connor Edel