MINNEAPOLIS — They gave James Jones the game ball Sunday. Then they gave him oxygen.
How often did he run in this season opener? How many plays did the Lions have? Talk about one-man offense. Directory assistance doesn’t get that many calls. Jones might as well have come to the line and said, “Uh-huh, that’s right fellas, it’s me again, No. 30, over here, yeah. . . . “
What difference would it have made? Minnesota had to know he was coming. By halftime Sunday, Jones had taken 18 handoffs from Eric Hipple and earned 109 yards, and by the final gun, those numbers swelled to 36 handoffs — tying Billy Sims’ club record — and 174 yards.
The UAW doesn’t get that much work.
“Would you use him that much again?” Darryl Rogers was asked after the Lions’ 13-10 victory.
“No,” Rogers said, “he’s a great fullback. I think we’d like to keep him.”
Here was the Lions offense Sunday: Jones off-tackle, Jones off-tackle, Jones up the middle, everybody . . . breathe! Jones off-tackle, Jones off-tackle, Jones up the middle, everybody . . .
It is not easy to keep running into defensive players, especially when they are trying to tear off your kneecaps. It is not easy once. It is especially tough 36 times.
I don’t know what the conversation was like in the Lions’ huddle, but I can imagine:
HIPPLE: James, your play, on three. . . .
JONES: Gasp . . . pant . . . wheeze . . .
HIPPLE: James, you hear me?
JONES: Gasp . . . pant . . . wheeze. Jones wanted the pigskin
Actually, I do know what the conversation was like. Or at least I know what I was told.
“Did James ever tell you he was too tired to take it?” I asked Hipple afterward.
“No, he really didn’t,” Hipple said.
“Did you ever tell Eric you were too tired to take it?” I then asked Jones.
“I was telling him that the whole fourth quarter!” Jones said.
Don’t worry, Eric. He was laughing at the time.
Either way, the Lions won — as Jones said afterward, “I’m a little sore right now, but I’d really be sore if we had lost” — and that is what counts. Victory. Detroit is so far perfect for this infant season, one victory, no defeats, tied with the Chicago Bears atop the NFC Central.
Can we stop now?
No, unfortunately. And neither can Jones. But he better slow down. At this rate he’ll have 1,000 yards by midseason, and then he’ll keel over. They can bury him with his pads on. Overworked? He should have a personalized respirator.
“Do you like that much work?” he was asked.
“Well, they could mix it up a little,” he said.
He doesn’t mind. Not when he wins. And, as Jones noted, the offensive line opened holes Sunday that are as common to this team as earrings.
“Normally, I’m used to seeing a little lane,” Jones said, holding his hands about this far apart. (You can’t see me, but I am holding my hands about eight inches from one another.)
“Today, they were pushing the bodies back and I was was seeing some BIG holes.” (I am now holding my hands two feet apart.) Off on the right foot
So the season is off and running. Literally. True, this was not what you’d call a really exciting game. It was grind-’em-out football. Poetry in motion? More like a novel in three-quarter time.
But who said football has to be aerial? Hey. Bo Schembechler has been getting away with this stuff for years.
Besides, on Sunday Jones gave the Lions more than a lot of sweat. He gave them something they hardly saw enough of last year. The ball.
All told, the Lions controlled the ball more than 37 of the 60 minutes. And if you take away the first quarter (a shaky one) they held it 32 of 45 minutes. But the most important statistic was this one: Five times they went to Jones on third- and-short, and four times he came back with a first down.
That’s what you call bringing home the check.
Next week will be a different story. But next week is always a different story. Today belongs to Mr. Double J. He scored the only Lions touchdown. His 174 yards was a personal best. He had the longest run of his career — a 39-yard burst that, considering his workload, would have been banned by the American Heart Association.
And — ta, da! — the Lions won their opener, on the road no less, thus shaking off a few dusty demons of last season. It is a long way to go, but a victory over a division rival never hurts.
In the tunnel after the game, a Minnesota reporter approached Rogers abruptly and declared, “Traditionally, bad things happen to the Lions when they play the Vikings, especially here. Did you realize that? Did you realize you broke a tradition here?”
And Rogers replied, “Good.”
Tell ’em, Darryl.