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Why coaching gives Detroit Lions a big edge over San Francisco 49ers

Kyle Shanahan is considered a “genius,” while Dan Campbell is known more for his leadership. But the Lions coach has a serious advantage over Shanahan when it comes to decision-making.

San Francisco 49ers v Detroit Lions Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions head to San Francisco for a shot at the Super Bowl against the 49ers. As larger than touchdown underdogs, the Lions are going to have to take advantage of every bit of leverage they have over the NFC’s top seed. The 49ers have a complete roster and have been considered favorites to make the Super Bowl for nearly the entire season.

On Paper, the Lions only have small advantages here and there. Their rushing attack has a chance to be successful against a 49ers front that is much better rushing the passer than it is defending the run. Aidan Hutchinson is also a huge mismatch against 49ers right tackle Colton McKivitz.

But Detroit’s biggest advantage may be at coaching.

On the surface, Dan Campbell vs. Kyle Shanahan has the looks of a David vs. Goliath matchup. Shanahan is regarded as one of the smartest offensive minds in football, capable of creating schemes and mismatches that will have defensive coordinators’ heads spinning. Meanwhile, those who don’t know Campbell view him as an archaic, old-school figure who leads with emotion over intelligence.

However, when it comes to game-day management, it is Shanahan who is stuck in the Stone Age while Campbell is the modern genius.

Analytics site Sumer Sports developed a statistic entitled Win Probability Added Over Expected, which measures the value of in-game decisions made by coaches. It factors in things like timeout usage, fourth down and two-point conversion decisions, and avoidance of delay of games.

Of the four coaches remaining in the playoffs, Campbell is lapping the field with the amount of win percentage he’s added to the Lions this year. Shanahan, on the other hand, is the worst of the bunch—and it’s not particularly close.

Image courtesy of Sumer Sports

Campbell has added 93.1% win percentage over expected, while Shanahan is the only remaining coach who tallied a negative value.

Unsurprisingly, Campbell’s biggest asset in game-day decisions is his aggressiveness on fourth down. Only the Carolina Panthers attempted more fourth downs conversions (48) than the Lions (40) in 2023, and Detroit’s 52.5% conversion rate is just above average. The 49ers, on the other hand, have attempted just 13 fourth downs—the fewest in the NFL.

The playoffs have been a perfect example of why Campbell’s aggressiveness has helped Detroit get to this moment. Against both the Rams and Buccaneers, the Lions went for it on fourth-and-goal and converted—turning a three-point opportunity into seven points.

In the postseason, those seemingly little decisions could turn out to be the difference between advancing and making golf reservations. So don’t overlook Detroit’s significant advantage there.

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After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.