FOR OPENERS, LIONS GO PLOPEXCITEMENT FIZZLES FAST AS BUCS ROMP

For a while there, I think it was about three minutes, there was real football excitement in this town. Unfortunately, it came during the warm-ups. The Lions raced out of the tunnel Sunday for their season opener, all shiny and new, and the crowd at the Silverdome roared its approval. The fans were on their feet. Amazing, isn’t it, what a little vacation can do to your memory?

Well. That’ll teach us to watch the pre-season. It took from 1:00 p.m. to 1:03 p.m. to show why these dreams of Lions grandeur may have to remain dreams a little longer. In four plays, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — improved, but hardly a powerhouse — scored a long touchdown that made the Lions defense look foolish.

By the time the day was over, the Bucs would make those defenders look slow and confused as well, racking up 38 points to the Lions’ 21. Vinny Testaverde, who two years ago led the NFL in interceptions, looked as if he were filming a commercial out there, checking his form, dabbing his makeup — then finding a receiver. He was never sacked. He was barely touched. I’ve heard a lot of new words around Lions camp these past few months. I still haven’t heard “pass rush.”

But wait. Before we lay too much guilt on the defense, which always seemed to take over with the Bucs already in sniffing distance of the goal line, let us speak of the offense. Um. Gee. How can we say this politely? It was like a linen suit; looked great for the first few minutes, then got wrinkled. Rodney Peete whipped eight completions that led to two touchdowns. Zip. Zap. Hey, look at that!

And then, something happened to the run ‘n’ shoot.

I think Rodney lost the instruction book. Where’s Barry?

“I can’t explain it,” said Peete, in the locker room after the loss. “The first two series, they couldn’t stop us. And then, I don’t know, we weren’t the same. I definitely wasn’t the same.”

You might say that. After the two touchdowns, here is a summary of the Peete-led drives: 1) nine yards, interception; 2) minus six yards, punt; 3) minus four yards, punt; 4) zero yards, punt; 4) two yards, fumble; 5) minus 15 yards, punt; 6) 31 yards, fumble; 7) benched for Bob Gagliano.

Those are not the sort of statistics you put on your resume.

And, to add insult to injury, let’s talk about Barry Sanders. There is a section in the Silverdome that calls itself “Barry’s Balcony.” For most of the game, Sanders might as well have been sitting there. He carried all of five times until midway through the third quarter. By that point, the Lions were behind by two touchdowns. Five carries? For the best running back in football? Hey, Wayne Fontes. Pre-season’s over. You can take the wraps off.

“We probably should have gone to Barry a little earlier,” Fontes admitted afterward. “But their linebackers were keying on him. Their whole defense was playing to stop Barry.”

Well. With all due respect, coach: says who? The numbers show Sanders averaged more than five yards per carry when he got the ball. Five yards? Hey, I’ll take that every time. It beats the alternative, which, on Sunday, was sacks (six), dropped passes, overthrows, miscommunication and flubs. Afterward, the Lions claimed that Tampa “didn’t make any major adjustments after those first two quick touchdowns.” Gee. I kind of wish they had. If that’s all it takes to stop the run ‘n’ shoot, somebody better go back to the chalkboard.

Good gosh. There were all those fumbles (three) and all those interceptions
(three). And Peete suddenly couldn’t find a receiver. And there was Jerry Ball, who played like a man who had one day of practice, when we all know he had two. And there were the defensive backs, and all those easy Testaverde completions, and . . .

Excuse me. I must stop and take a Maalox.

‘They thrashed us’

Why is this so upsetting? Because Sunday was more than a loss, it was a letdown. It was as if Dorothy crashed in flames just minutes after leaving Oz. Wasn’t this supposed to be the new season, the new year, the year things like 38 points for the opposition doesn’t happen?

“I thought we would win,” said Sanders, who is usually pretty realistic. The fact is, the Lions didn’t only want to win this game, they almost had to. Everyone knows their schedule is easier at the start than the finish. Anything less than 3-1 after four games (Tampa, Atlanta, Tampa, Green Bay) would make a
.500 season awfully difficult.

So Game 1 was supposed to be the big beginning. The engine rev. Before Sunday, players and coaches were talking about how the schedule might give them momentum, enough to make the playoffs.

Now, after the game, they were talking about how great Tampa Bay is. “They are a much superior football team,” said Fontes. “They thrashed us. They kicked our butts. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went 14-2 this season.”

Hmm. Considering the Lions have to play them again in two weeks, that doesn’t bode very well, does it?

You know what? This stinks. For both sides — the players and the audience. It’s not fair to Detroit fans, who could be the best fans in the country if they ever got something legit to cheer about. And it’s not fair to the current Lions, who shouldn’t have to pay for the failures of all those teams who came before them.

But for now, that’s the way it is. Jim Arnold was the first man to burst from the tunnel during those glorious three minutes of Detroit football frenzy Sunday. When the gun sounded, he was the first man back in. This time he was alone. The stands were nearly empty. A few fans booed and he tried not to look. Maybe the future is brighter. Hopefully it is. But here was a Sunday that went nothing but plop, and everything new was old again.

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