Anyone would have bet against it. Anyone, except a Detroit Lions fan. The ball came off the foot of Baltimore kicker Justin Tucker and flew toward the uprights, which were a record 66 yards away. And as it soared through the air with time expiring on the clock, it seemed to rotate with the spins of every unlucky, cursed and star-crossed moment in Detroit football history: Eddie Murray going wide right. Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind. Tom Dempsey, with no toes on his kicking foot, hitting a then-record 63-yard field goal in 1970 to beat the Lions as the clock ran out.
That was half-a-century ago. It couldn’t happen again, right? Lightning never strikes the same team twice? Anyone would have bet against it.
Anyone, except a Lions fan. We know better. We’ve seen hell. This was hell and back. Tucker’s kick sailed, seemingly forever, then descended, looking short. Then, as 50,000 fans felt their eyes bulge and their throats choke, the ball clonked the yellow crossbar, flew into the air, and finally, as if swiped by Lucy just to taunt Charlie Brown, spun backwards toward the stands.
“He made it?” we gasped.
He made it. Sixty-six yards with no time left. The Lions, who lead the world in weird ways to lose, actually found one we hadn’t seen before, and trust me, we thought we’d seen them all. Apparently, when it comes to crushing dreams, the Lions are like Cuisinarts. Always another blade you haven’t used.
“I just … I don’t even know how to describe it,” said stunned Lions coach Dan Campbell after the 19-17 loss. “I didn’t think it would make it. … If you said that, ‘They’re gonna kick a 66-yarder to win the game,’ you’d have taken those odds.”
Unless you’re a Lions fan. Lions fans don’t take odds. Lions fans remember Brett Favre to Sterling Sharpe in the end zone. Aaron Rodgers and the Hail Mary. The flag in Dallas that the refs picked up.
Lions fans don’t take odds.
We just cringe.
So close, yet so far away
Sixty-six yards. An NFL record. And the Lions remain winless on the year. To be honest, I feel badly for Campbell and the rest of his squad. For one thing, this is new to many of them. Yes, Campbell played here for a few years, but this is his first time joining the ranks of bewildered Lions coaches who look like they’re just seeing that creature from “Alien.”
Besides, the Lions, a 7½-point underdog at home, had actually played well enough Sunday to win this thing. Their defense bottled Lamar Jackson, the former league MVP, just enough to keep things close. Their offense, woeful in the first half, put together some stalwart drives in the second half, and came from 13 points down to take a one-point lead, 17-16, with just over a minute left, on a field goal from a kicker, Ryan Santoso, who was just signed off the practice squad.
And then, for three straight plays, the Lions defense looked like world-beaters. They sacked Jackson for a loss of 3. They harassed him into an errant pass down the middle. They sacked him again on the sidelines to bring up a damn-near impossible fourth-and-19 from the Baltimore 16-yard line.
The house was rockin’. It was like 10,000 Detroit engines revving at the same time. One more stop and the game was over, the Lions would have their first win of the year, and we could all enjoy Sunday night dinner for a change.
But then, because this is a Detroit story, Jackson took the snap, got great protection, stayed upright, out of trouble, and flung a 36-yard pass to an open Sammy Watkins who reached the Lions’ 48-yard line as his teammates raced up to call another play.
No one would have been thinking field goal from there. But after a fast spike and a throw out of bounds, that’s all the Ravens had left. Tucker trotted out, and no doubt, somewhere in the world, people were laughing, chuckling, wetting themselves, saying, “Isn’t this cute? They’re going to try a 66-yard field goal.”
Somewhere they were saying that.
Not in Detroit.
In Detroit, we were mumbling, “Uh-oh…”
Frustration felt by Fords
“That one was something else!” Tucker gushed to the Fox reporter after the win. “I don’t really have the words to do it justice … all I can say is trust, man. Trust God. Trust this team. We got something special.”
And we, as Charlie Brown says every Halloween, got a rock.
Thus ends another Lions game, in dramatic/comedic fashion, and while there should be much pride in how hard they played, how hard they fought back, how easily this could have gone the other way, the fact is, when the smoke clears the team is still 0-3 and waiting for the season’s first win. That’s gonna be a heavy lift.
“About as big a gut punch as I’ve ever been a part of,” said quarterback Jared Goff.
Meanwhile, as awful as that field goal was, it was only the second most-cringe worthy moment of the day. The first came during halftime, when the owners of our NFL franchise, Martha Firestone Ford, 96, and Sheila Ford Hamp, 70, drew a shower of boos so loud they seemed to shrink by the moment.
The booing forced Ford Hamp to hurry her awkward introduction of Calvin Johnson, who was on hand to pick up his Hall of Fame ring. Not even mentioning the fan-favorite receiver could save her from the ridicule.
“Lions fans … (BOOOO) … Isn’t it great … (BOOOO) … to have Calvin Johnson here? … (BOOO)”
It was like that “Shame! Shame!” scene in “Game of Thrones.” Any thought that Ford Field fans might be polite to two older female scions was naïve. Lions frustration knows no age or gender. It is angry and blinding and constantly simmering beneath the surface. And while Sheila and Martha are only recently responsible for the Lions woes, the Ford family has been steering this franchise since the 60s.
Fifty-eight years of ownerships.
One playoff win.
You were expecting cheers?
That’s how it goes around here. It’ll be a long time before the Fords step on the field again. But the players have no choice.
And so, in the spirit of optimism, let’s point out that the Lions hung with one of the top teams in the NFL, and were a bounce away from a big win, and seem to be improving under Campbell, who, by the time you read this, may have taken the pillow off of his head.
“He made it?” you’re still whispering.
He made it. Just like Dempsey made it. Just like Mornhinweg took the wind. After the game was over, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh found Tucker, his star kicker, and gushed, “Hey! … We’re going to remember this the rest of our lives.”
So are we, John. That’s the problem.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.