BARRY WHO?UNSUNG PLAYERS HELP LIONS SNARE A ROAD WIN SANS SANDERS, MOORE

SEATTLE — They lost their first superstar over the summer, when he retired without a phone call. They lost their second superstar minutes into Sunday’s season opener when a lineman came flying into his knee. Down he went. Off he went. Carted away. Future uncertain. Herman Moore gone. Barry Sanders gone.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is all the superstars the Lions had.

“For a split second there,” offensive tackle Ray Roberts would later say, “I thought I heard all the TV sets in Detroit click off at once.”

Can you blame him? Before the scalps were even sweat-soaked in this 1999 football season, the No Names were in command of Detroit’s football fortunes. You know how there’s “The Barry Sanders Era” or “The Scott Mitchell Era”? This was the “Who’s That Guy? Era.” The official cheer was a fist in the air, followed by a frantic search of the lineup card.

In most cities, this would be cause for panic. But last season, the Lions only won five games with their superstars.

So with Sanders somewhere in the private sector and Moore headed for the X-ray machine, the overwhelming reaction from Lions watchers was somewhere between,
“How much worse can it get?” and “Who knows, maybe this will be an improvement.”

For one game, anyhow, it was.

Never mind how they spell their names. The Lions won an opener on the road for the first time since the Reagan administration. They scored four touchdowns. They played some tight defense.

“You could feel the team pulling together the more people pulled against us,” quarterback Charlie Batch said, after the Lions upset Seattle, 28-20, to begin the Sanders-less era. “I don’t think anybody expected us to win this game except the guys in this room.”

Who’s That Guy? Era . . .

…Undefeated.

A reason to watch

Now, it’s true, to Lions fans who do not watch exhibition season football — and why should they? — Sunday must have seemed like one of those charity softball events, where some of the team shows up but not the really big names. There was no Sanders, no Moore, not even Mitchell (traded away, without remorse, to Baltimore). There was, however, Ron Rivers — he’s a running back
— taking handoffs and picking up yardage by slamming into people and driving them back. Not the way Barry did it, perhaps, but still effective.

There was Germane Crowell — he’s a receiver, write it down — scooping in a 16-yard pass in a corner of the end zone for one touchdown and leaping for a 41-yard heave-ho from Batch for another.

There was a special-teamer named Lamar Campbell, yanking down a Seattle punt returner and stripping him for a fumble. And there was another crazed special-teamer named Brock Olivo (is that a football name, or what?) who recovered that fumble in the shadow of the Seattle end zone.

And there was Cory Schlesinger.

Schlesinger has been on the Lions since 1995 — not that anyone would know it. In four seasons, he carried the ball 13 times. For years, his quickest move on game days was getting out of the way of the reporters rushing to Barry Sanders’ locker. Schlesinger is an amiable guy. But most of my journalistic conversations with him went this way:

CORY: “Excuse me.”

ME (waiting in pack for Barry): “Sorry?”

CORY: “Can I sneak in there and get my clothes?”

ME: “Oh. Sure.”

CORY: “Thanks.”

Now here was Schlesinger on Sunday getting calls when they counted. He scampered — if you can call what a fullback does scampering — for 16 yards on a single play, one yard short of his entire output last season. He barreled ahead for five yards and a first down. He chewed up 21 yards in three successive plays to close the first half.

“My goal,” he said afterward, “was not to lose yardage.”

Hey. Barry sets his sights, Cory sets his.

But by day’s end, Schlesinger (50), Rivers (96) and Greg Hill (24) — the three men tapped to fill Barry’s shoes — had a total of 170 rushing yards. And while none of them could hope to mimic the sweet cutting dashes and elusive jukes of No. 20, they also didn’t have many of those no-gain or minus-one swarming tackle plays that came with Sanders’ style. And they did do a few things Barry didn’t: like put a shoulder down into a defender’s helmet for a few extra yards. Like plow straight ahead on third-and-short, guaranteeing at least a first down.

Schlesinger, Rivers and Hill may only do this because they have to. Who cares? Shakespeare said a rose by any other name is still a rose.

So is a defeat.

And there have been enough of those around here, right?

They weren’t the Packers

Now, a few things must be pointed out. One, Sunday’s opponent, the Seahawks. Or was it Seagulls? For much of the game, Seattle ran with the efficiency of the Waco siege. New boss Mike Holmgren, who led Green Bay to two Super Bowls, proved that a coach with Brett Favre is way better than a coach without him. At times the Seahawks looked as confused as Arnold Schwarzenegger at a Lilith Fair concert.

By the end, the Seahawks had four fumbles, one missed field goal, only 31 yards rushing and a punt snap that sailed out of the end zone — and hit a photographer in the head.

Even the Lions never did that.

But if we shine the light on Seattle’s darkness, then the same should be done for the Lions’ bright spots. The men who are going to lead this team — Batch, Robert Porcher, Stephen Boyd, Jason Hanson, Rivers, Crowell, — all played up to the challenge. Batch continued to look calm beyond his years. He not only threw for three touchdowns, he came right back from his one boneheaded play — a sideline interception returned for a score — by leading the Lions to a touchdown of their own.

And when Seattle pulled close at the end, the Lions did not collapse. They ate the clock, used Rivers’ legs to chew up yardage, and got a long field goal from Hanson. The Detroit defense took over, stopping Seattle’s comeback hopes before they even reached midfield.

“Do you think Seattle might have been overconfident against you?” someone asked Detroit’s Chris Claiborne.

“No,” he gushed. “We’re a great team.”

Forgive him, he’s a rookie. (He’s also a linebacker. Write it down.)

This is not a great team. It wasn’t before Barry and Herman disappeared, but it did do a great thing Sunday. It proved there’s reason to watch Lions football even when you think there’s no reason to watch.

It was an inspiring game. Confusing, perhaps, but inspiring. All hail the
“Who’s That Guy? Era.” Shakespeare be damned. It’s not what’s in a name, it’s what’s in the score.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760).

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