Before the game, his first as an NFL head coach, Matt Patricia bounced excitedly between his husky players, slapping their helmets and shoulder pads, as if he might join them in the field of battle. Bearded, stocky and dressed in all black, he looked like a guy who would serve you a hearty stout in an Irish pub, or captain a runaway pirate ship. He was feisty and fiery and ready to go, and the home crowd was, too.
And then the game started.
New fall, old stumble. The cool autumnal weather may have said “football,” but the performance said “Detroit Lions football,” and anyone who has watched this team for decades knows what that means. Amongst other things, it means opportunities blown, weaker opponents elevated, unknown players making names for themselves at Detroit’s expense, mistakes, more mistakes, and a long drive home at the end of the night.
I’m not one to doom a team to its past. But all that old stuff happened Monday night, in what was supposed to be a new start in a new era for the don’t-call-us-the-same-old-Lions.
First of all, the game was lost, 48-17, against the New York Jets. No, that’s not a typo. And this was at home.
Second, Matthew Stafford had one of his worst games as a Lion, four interceptions, most of them bad reads on his part.
Third, Ziggy Ansah went out with an injury (stop if you’ve heard that one before).
Fourth, the vaunted new parts of this team under Patricia, like the revamped running game, were all but nonexistent, and new Lions Kerryon Johnson and LeGarrette Blount gained less than 20 yards between them.
Fifth, the defense, already rumored to be suspect, made a lousy road team look like warriors. The Jets won one of eight games away from home last year, games in which they averaged a mere 14 points. Monday night, they scored 48.
Sixth, the special teams were absolutely atrocious, surrendering long returns, a punt-return touchdown, and missing two field goals.
Seventh, the Lions…
Ah, why bother? If you get to seven, you’ve passed depressing.
New fall, old stumble.
Lousy play, lousy support
Now, there will be time to address the Lions’ weaknesses. Lord knows, we may have all season. But before that, something needs to be said about those fans booing Stafford louder and louder as the game went on.
Yeah, he threw picks. Yeah, it was a lousy game. But this guy is the best quarterback to play in this town maybe ever, and he has slogged through 10 seasons here like an iron man, and he gets up through every hard hit and pushes himself back out there when most humans would say, “Are you kidding? I have to go back to THAT?”
Twice on Monday night Stafford took nasty blows, first a spike to his knee by his own lineman, Taylor Decker, that left the quarterback writhing on the ground, and second, a sandwich hit to the back and gut that left him down and short of breath for a few scary minutes. Both times he willed himself back into the game, despite knowing, deep down, that the night was lost.
“Those guys were fighting tooth and nail out there and I was gonna be out there with them,” Stafford said afterwards, refusing to blame or even detail his injuries, just saying “I’ll be OK.”
There’s not an ounce of diva in this guy, and he’s way more talented than the majority of quarterbacks in his league. If he’s burdened with a line that can’t protect him, or receivers that can’t hang onto his passes, or even a night when he’s not seeing things well, that’s his burden, but it’s not yours. The boos are misdirected, disrespectful, and flat-out stupid.
Yes, whenever you have a night game, you get more vocal fans, and maybe some of that nasty noise was the beer talking. But in either case, it was wrong. Wrong to Stafford, and given that this is the season opener, wrong to the whole team.
“Whatever’s going on out there is going on out there,” Stafford said of the booing. “…Nobody was more frustrated in that stadium than I was. I was making poor decisions and poor throws and that’s frustrating for me, too.”
That’s a lot classier than the crowd he performed for. There were Lions fans pointing their thumbs down all game long. But given the razzing in this first game of the year, some Lions players might have wanted to offer a finger of their own.
We’ve seen this show before
Now, none of that excuses the Lions’ flat-out flatness in this 2018 debut, against what should have been a beatable opponent. The night started well, with a pick-six on Jets rookie Sam Darnold’s first NFL throw. Quandre Diggs stole the cross-field heaveand ran it in to the end zone, and the Lions led 7-0 before the offense touched the ball.
But that was about it for highlights. And the disturbing things we saw in the preseason, a defense that didn’t look like much, an offensive line that was new but not necessarily better, proved to be more than shadows. That defense got ripped for runs as well as passes. (And Patricia is supposed to be a defensive guru.) The Lions gave up way too many third-down conversions while not converting near enough themselves. Their pass rush won’t scare anybody, especially if Ansah is once again out. And those special teams are the polar opposite of special.
But hey, NFL seasons are nothing if not a test, and the big test for Patricia now will be how he steers his squad away from the rails and back to the center. A road game against San Francisco and a Sunday night showdown with the Patriots are up next, and 0-3 is not how you get the team to jump on your bandwagon.
“There’s not a lot to be happy about here…” Patricia said after the loss. “(But) we regroup and we push forward.”
After a game like that, you can’t exactly go backwards.
New fall, old stumble. Interestingly, when Patricia was directing the defense for New England, his team was 10-2 against rookie quarterbacks and stole 13 interceptions while giving up just 12 touchdowns.
As Patricia was rudely reminded Monday night, he is no longer in New England.
Meanwhile, the rookie Darnold, with two passing touchdowns and 198 yards, became the latest in a long line of heretofore unknown quarterbacks who turn into stars against Detroit. And, as a bonus, he got to hear his first regular season cheers of “J-E-T-S, JETS-JETS-JETS!” — because by the end of the night, about the only folks left in Ford Field were a few hundred Jets fans.
Lions fans were mostly gone. You can’t blame them. Why stay for the finish of a show you’ve seen before?
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 Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.