I’m going to begin this column the way the Detroit Lions began their game against the Browns.
Wake me up in 20 minutes.
The Lions were as ready for Sunday as Warren Beatty was for last year’s Best Picture announcement. If their fingers were drenched in butter and grease, they couldn’t have flubbed this opening more.
Go three-and-out. Surrender a field goal. Throw an interception. Surrender a touchdown. Ten points down in less than 8 minutes played? To an 0-8 team? Hey, guys. If you want fans to act like you a have a chance, you have to act like you have a pulse.
This awkward opening was bad preparation and worse execution. You can’t start a 1 p.m. game like it’s a 4 p.m. kickoff — not at home, against a winless opponent. I know all about “every team in the NFL is dangerous.” I also know good teams don’t let bad teams get started.
There’s no excuse for Sunday’s lack of early tackling, blocking and execution. Not to start the first half — and not to start the second, when the Browns marched 85 yards for a touchdown.
You may think I’m being too harsh, considering the Lions won 38-24 (and coach Jim Caldwell, who likes calm waters, may think so, too).
But if the Lions can stain a victory with so much shaky play, then we can dot a winning postmortem with some criticism. Hey. If you want to be judged by the same standard as Cleveland, which has lost every game this year, lost 15 of 16 last year, and 13 of 16 the year before, then fine. Nice effort, Lions, way to pull it out.
But if you want to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, you have to play seriously, and giving up over 400 yards of offense to the lowly Browns — including 201 yards rushing — well, that’s not good.
“It’s going to happen,” Caldwell said.
Yes, it will. It happens more to mediocre teams than great ones. Which do you want to be?
There was some good, a lot of bad
Now, I know the Lions did some fine things Sunday — sweet plays by Golden Tate, some nice holes opened for the running backs. I know Cleveland masks its defenses well.
But this game was 10-0 in the first, and 24-24 in the fourth. If not for some early Christmas gifts (which is what winless teams give you) the Lions could have blown it.
The Browns handed over points on the last play of the half, at the Lions 2, calling a quarterback run with no timeouts left and failing to get off another play. They overthrew a sure touchdown in the second half. Took bad penalties. Got to the Lions 4 in the final two minutes before throwing a pick.
“These types of games are tough,” admitted safety Glover Quin. “You got a team with a lot of talented players that haven’t had the good fortune of winning games…so, they’re throwing everything at you, they’re trying, scratching, clawing to get a W.”
The Lions had to scratch and claw back. Stafford had an up-and-down day. Some blinking-great passes, a huge audible to Tate for a score, a few nice runs. But he continued to have balls batted away, threw a regrettable pick, and got sacked four more times, bringing his 2017 total to 30, on pace for his roughest year yet.
And there was cornerback Nevin Lawson, a study in inconsistency. He was cheered for stripping a ball and returning it for a touchdown, but it didn’t excuse a pattern of bad early play that saw him surrender a 38-yard sideline bomb and whiff on a tackle to allow Cleveland’s first touchdown.
“I had a rough first quarter, probably the worst first quarter of my career, period, from pee wee, you know what I’m saying?”
Yep. We watched it.
Play with fire, you get burned
If all you want is mediocrity, then all that counts is that you beat a weak team. But the Lions aspire to more. On a day when Minnesota (7-2) was stopping a very good Washington team and Green Bay (5-4), without Aaron Rodgers, was still beating the Bears, the Lions had to win just to keep pace in the NFC North.
They’ll need to play better to make up ground.
Caldwell is smart to pit the inside of the locker room against the outside, saying nothing critics say gets though the wall. That’s his job. But not ours. Not yours. The fact is, there is what’s said and there is what’s thought, and deep down the Lions knew, coming into Sunday, they had one game left on the schedule against a winning team.
They can make the postseason. But they need to guard against letdowns, to start fast and finish faster. “All’s well that ends well,” that’s what they say.
They also say “play with fire, you get burned.”
Pick your philosophy.
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.