BETTER DAYS AHEAD? WE CAN ONLY HOPE

NEW ORLEANS – It was a new season and a new roster and a new coach and a new start, but for Lions fans, it was a new quarterback. Let’s face it, that’s what they wanted to see. We get them a lot in Detroit, but there is still something about the first moment, something exciting, like rolling a new car off the lot, and you know how we are about cars.

So, with a tug of his helmet Sunday, out trotted Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 pick in the draft, the heir apparent to all the previous heirs apparent. The fact that he was already losing, 7-0, when he took the field shouldn’t faze anyone. These are the Lions. And they didn’t draft a new defense.

Besides, the score could have been 100-0 (and for a while there, it looked like it might be), this still would have been the kid’s debut.

His first play was a handoff, his second was a short completion, his third was a short throw, incomplete. The Lions punted.

That could have been Rodney Peete, Joey Harrington, Jon Kitna.

He threw three interceptions. He suffered his first loss as a starter. He talked about “learning” and “capitalizing on opportunities.” That could have been Scott Mitchell, Andre Ware, Erik Kramer.

But I don’t think Stafford is any one of those. I think he’s young, he survived, and he’ll get better.

Hey, it’s the first week. What do you want? Total cynicism? Rookie’s first letter grade: OK

Besides, you knew this was going to be rough on Stafford before he ever took a snap. Starting a rookie, on the road, against a point machine like the Saints? Why not push a camel through the eye of a needle? Or get Monica Conyers to give back money?

Before Sunday was done, Stafford would have 205 passing yards, 16 completions to his team, three completions to the other team, a 64-yard connection with Calvin Johnson, a sneak for a touchdown, a sack, and a tackle on a 307-pound lineman (whom he brought down, amazingly, without getting flattened).

He would throw on the money and he would throw nowhere near the intended target. He was high and he was low and he was true and he was false. He was, as is often said of teenaged conversation, all over the place, and considering he’s 21, that’s not surprising.

“I really wasn’t too nervous,” he claimed after the 45-27 loss. “… It was tough. Playing from behind is never easy.”

I will resist the urge to say “get used to it.”

Here’s what there is to like: Stafford gets the ball out fast. He can throw it on a rope. He doesn’t pump fake, he doesn’t hesitate, he looks to have decent foot mechanics, and he didn’t show any road nerves.

Here’s what there is to improve: Accuracy. It’s one thing to graze a ball off a receiver’s fingertips. It’s another to bounce it to him. Stafford, mysteriously, had numerous passes way off the mark. He said he was trying to throw some away. At least he’s trying. Previous Lions did that with no effort whatsoever.

The kid did OK. That’s all. Just OK, which is pretty good when you’re talking about starting your career with last year’s worst team in football history. There’s no defense for this effort

Of course Stafford’s performance will not matter if the defense remains as awful as it was Sunday. Drew Brees, who never felt a pass rush, had six touchdown passes. Six? Detroit cornerback Eric King, a late start for an injured Phillip Buchanon, was picked on all day, and let’s just say if he were an archery target, he’d have a lot of bull’s-eye holes.

Over 500 yards of offense surrendered?

“No silver linings,” new coach Jim Schwartz said. Right, it’s hard to find silver when you’re black and blue. Why is it that whenever a defensive specialist is hired as head coach, the biggest problem seems to be the defense?

Well, you didn’t expect a complete reversal of fortune, did you? At one point, Stafford was knocked down, and he reached for someone to help him to his feet. Only Saints were around, and they ignored him.

Might as well get used to it. With the Lions, you lift yourself. Yes, they lost. Yes, that’s 18 defeats in a row, dating to 2007. But there were moments of promise – especially with the kid quarterback. Let’s focus on them for now. We’ve had enough of the other thing to last a lifetime.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. For tickets to his charity book launch for “Have a Little Faith” on Sept. 30 at the Fox Theatre, call 800-745-3000 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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