Dan Campbell turned Lions' fortunes by being aggressive, and he isn't changing — even if it cost him Sam LaPorta

Around Detroit, they had begun calling him "Dan Gamble" even before his biggest gamble of the season may have busted.

Head coach Dan Campbell is about channeling aggression and being aggressive. There is no manner in which it doesn’t seep into his life — fourth-down calls, fake punts, news conference sound bites, legendary caffeine intake.

The man arrived in Detroit promising his Lions would turn around generations of failure by biting kneecaps. If anything, it was an understatement. He never backs down from anything. Sometimes it’s analytic-based. Sometimes it's just a mood.

When some fans, uncomfortable with such a mindset, have voiced concern, Campbell instructed them to “wear a diaper” during games.

He isn’t changing.

So there could be little doubt that he would play his best players on Sunday in search of a possible, if unlikely, path to move from the No. 3 seed to the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. “We're gonna use our full arsenal,” Campbell promised. If an advantage could be gained, it would be attempted. If that meant a risk for injury, then that’s Dan Campbell football.

Well, Detroit gots its victory, 30-20 over Minnesota, lifting it to 12-5 on the season. The Lions have to settle for the No. 3 seed as the Dallas Cowboys earned the No. 2 spot. That means Detroit will host Matthew Stafford and the Los Angeles Rams in wild-card weekend.

Yet the enduring image of Sunday's Lions game came in the second quarter, when star rookie tight end Sam LaPorta appeared to hyperextend his knee while catching a pass.

Dan Campbell gambled by playing his starters in Week 18 with a slim chance at moving up to the No. 2 seed, and it likely busted. But he isn't changing his aggressive style. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)
Dan Campbell gambled by playing his starters in Week 18 with a slim chance at moving up to the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs, and it likely busted. But he isn't changing his aggressive style. (Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images)

For a franchise that knows nothing but heartbreak, this was an almost expected nightmare. Of course. Of course something would happen.

“It’s not as bad as it looked, but it’s not good news,” Campbell said. “We’ll know more [Monday]. I know it looked awful but it’s not as bad as that. But that doesn’t mean that it looks good in the immediate, to have him for a game.”

So maybe LaPorta is out for the foreseeable playoffs, but not lost long-term in a way that might impact next season? We’ll see.

In the meantime, there will be no lack of second-guessing from some about Campbell not just accepting the third seed and saving his best players for the postseason. As popular as he is in Detroit, the unbridled aggressiveness can be jarring to some. Old-school broadcasters and analysts struggle with him.

Yet this is the deal. Maybe one day he becomes a more experienced coach and the Lions become a more established franchise and things are different.

Right now though, perhaps the only way someone was going to shake this franchise from decades of doldrums was by unapologetically grabbing each and every opportunity by the throat.

Detroit has 12 wins for the first time in over 30 years. Ford Field will host its first Lions postseason game ever — it opened in 2002. The team is seeking its first playoff victory since January 1992 and just its second since 1957.

Barry Sanders couldn’t make this work. Calvin Johnson couldn’t make this work. Matthew Stafford and Ndamukong Suh couldn’t make this work.

Campbell — and general manager Brad Holmes — just might. It’s not just talent but attitude. Maybe that’s the only way you break such a curse.

What’s clear is that for the first time in memory Detroit plays on its front foot, seeks the fight and imposes its will.

Yes, LaPorta got hurt, and there is no discounting the importance of a guy who earlier Sunday set the rookie tight end reception mark (his 85 bested Keith Jackson’s 81 in 1988). That included a 10th touchdown joining just Mike Ditka (12 in 1962) and Rob Gronkowski (10 in 2010) as the only rookie tight ends to hit double digits.

Yet there was no woe-is-me routine going on.

“We’ll be ready,” Campbell said. “If he can’t go, we’ll have the answer. We have plenty at our disposal to move the football.”

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JANUARY 07: Sam LaPorta #87 of the Detroit Lions is on the field with an injury during the second quarter in the game against the Minnesota Vikings at Ford Field on January 07, 2024 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)
Lions tight end Sam LaPorta suffered a knee injury on Sunday. (Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images)

Campbell acknowledged the debate around resting top talent, but noted there is still a game to be played and only so many bodies on the roster. Sit too many guys and there is unnecessary pressure on others.

“I’ve been through it as a player and a coach,” he said. “I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer. You do the best you can.”

Last week in a loss to Dallas, Campbell baffled some when he attempted a game-winning 2-point conversion from the 7-yard line (due to a penalty) when the analytics said kick the extra point. He explained that he had told his offensive players they were going to go score a touchdown and win the game on a conversion and unless a penalty pushed them behind the 10-yard line, “I wasn’t going to back off of that.”

It was about belief in his players, a bond with his players, a sensibility he wants in his players. In the end it didn’t work — Dallas committed a penalty and then Detroit failed on the next play — but he didn’t care. Same here.

He certainly didn’t want LaPorta injured, but this is how he runs a team and this is how he has run the Lions to heights no one saw coming.

“You kind of are either all in or all out,” Campbell said. “And we were going. We were doing that.”

Each and every time. It may work in spectacular fashion. It may spectacularly backfire. Either way, Dan Gamble is headed to the playoffs, with neither fear nor regret.