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The Detroit Lions were right to play their starters, regardless of injuries

Monday morning quarterbacking misses the reality of the situation

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Dan Campbell made it clear: the Detroit Lions would play their starters against the Minnesota Vikings in NFL Week 18. The Lions had clinched the division title and a playoff berth two weeks prior against the same Vikings, but in spite of a loss to the Cowboys a week prior, the Lions entered Sunday with a slim chance to take the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoff order, a chance that doesn’t manifest unless the Lions defeated the Vikings.

This was always the plan, to play starters. However, as the game wore on, the Lions suffered two significant injuries to their offense: tight end Sam LaPorta and Kalif Raymond. It would come out after the game that LaPorta suffered a hyperextended knee, which probably takes him out of consideration for the Wild Card game but could see him return in an extended playoff campaign.

The moment LaPorta went down, questions were raised: should the Lions really be risking their starters in a slim chance for an improved playoff seed?

Well, yes. Of course. That’s a given. Duh!

Wait, you’re serious on this? Okay, let’s sit down a minute. There’s a lot of reasons why you’re wrong. Let’s talk about why, because this not only is a bad case of Monday morning quarterbacking, but some mistaken ideas about rest.

LaPorta and Raymond would have probably played anyway

The Lions did not have Brock Wright active for this game, which reduced their active tight ends to LaPorta and James Mitchell. It seems very unlikely that they would have simply rested LaPorta and forced Mitchell to take 100% of TE snaps. If your goal is to avoid injuries, you’re not playing Mitchell 100% of the snaps, and if he gets hurt, your playoff depth is just as shot. No matter how you felt, LaPorta was going to play some amount of this game.

Likewise, Raymond is not far up enough on the depth chart to have been resting if starters were pulled.

“You don’t want anybody to get hurt,” said Campbell, “especially a game like this, but there again, we had two tight ends, and we used [Dan Skipper]. We tried to limit what we could, and that happened to be a play that happened.”

Here’s the reality of it: there’s only 53 spots on the active roster, and 48 game day actives after practice squad elevations. At any point, 11 people have to play on offense, and 11 on defense. Not everyone will get rest - in fact most will not. Resting starters works great if your goal is to rest a veteran quarterback or edge defender, but young players on shallow depth won’t be the ones taking the bench.

This isn’t the preseason, there are not enough roster spots to go around. Some will have to play. So nothing would have changed with the playing time of key young players.

It’s Dan Campbell

I don’t know how to break this coherently, but Dan Campbell is a guy who just Loves The Hell Out of Football. He is an aggro beast, smart and intelligent and whip smart but he is still a football player. He has that DNA, he desires aggression and noise and winning. He is a student of the Herm Edwards philosophy like every football player worth the salt.

Much like with the questions about his decision to try a two-point conversion from the 7-yard line against the Dallas Cowboys, his decisions aren’t driven by any sort of analytical min-maxing situations. This is just what you get on the Campbell ride. He wants the ball and he wants to go win the game. After three years, Detroit should have a grasp on that, if nothing else, about their head coach. They were always going to play starters to try to win because it’s the 12th win of the season and it’s a chance for players to get bonuses and it’s a chance to play a game to win that game.

It’s football

Injuries cannot be completely guarded against. This game is a blood sport. You will get hurt at some point. I don’t know what kind of quantum entanglement nonsense you got over there but I refuse to believe you’ve figured out that the timeline where the Lions didn’t play their starters would have kept everyone healthy. Maybe it wouldn’t have been LaPorta—but someone else, somewhere, somehow. Again, not everyone would be able to rest.

Injuries are part of football. They are a grisly reminder of its inherent nature. You cannot avoid them. Attempting to barter against them is a fool’s errand. They will come and you can only accept it.

You would have kicked yourself if the Cowboys and Eagles lost

Really now, you want to toss a game out calling it “meaningless” and then the Commanders and Giants go out and hang wins? What kind of explanation do you have on Monday if that had happened? You had the 2 seed ready for you and decided to punt and give up a second potential home game in the playoffs?

No way in hell. That would be an even worse look: a look of cowardice and refusal to play the game.

No, let’s not just keep it at playoff consideration. What about franchise records for touchdowns, what about celebrating with your best for your fans, what about pushing for 12 wins which the Lions haven’t had in ages, ages man, just complete ages?

Let’s settle this talk for what it is: Monday morning quarterbacking, playing a fear after the fact, all in service for a plea to min-max that accomplishes marginal gains at best, goes against the spirit of what this team is, who its coach is.

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