There’s this little detail fans forget about in the excitement of an NFL preseason, but it makes itself obvious every opening Sunday.
The other team.
Oh, yeah. Those guys.
HBO has left the building. Their cameras are probably filming a “Game of Thrones” episode in Slovenia. “Hard Knocks” might have been reality TV, but what’s left in Detroit is old fashioned reality — the regular season, where you have to outplay the guys across from you.
On Sunday, when it counted, the Detroit Lions were reminded of the distance between them and teams that are actually predicted to go somewhere this year, like the Philadelphia Eagles, who came to Ford Field with their rising star quarterback Jalen Hurts, ready to run.
And run he did.
From the opening drive, where he shredded the Lions defense for 35 yards on his first three carries, to the final drive, where on fourth-and-1, game on the line, he snuck the ball just far enough for a first down and a Lions defeat, 38-35, the kid was the difference.
“Hurts hurt us,” Dan Campbell said.
Meanwhile, the Lions did too much to fall behind by 17 points and not enough to make up for it. Too many mistakes, too many third downs blown and surrendered and one really bad turnover did them in.
Still, as Lions openers go, Sunday was a semi-success, in that there were still people in the seats at the final gun.
To paraphrase Marty Mornhinwheg, “the bar is low.”
But a loss is a loss. So, as they did last year, and the year before that, our home team begins the season in a hole.
Back to reality.
Effort only goes so far
Look, the Lions play hard, and Campbell has them undeniably motivated. But talent still rules the day in the NFL, especially at the quarterback position. The Lions had no answer for Hurts, the brilliant college star at Alabama and Oklahoma who is making the Eagles look pretty smart for drafting him in the second round. (The second round? Really?)
Hurts accounted for 333 yards of offense Sunday, 90 of it with his feet. His passing was sharp enough, but his running, or the threat of it, exposed the Lions defense, which chased him all day but only sacked him once.
Aidan Hutchinson, the Lions No. 1 pick, had a baptism by fire in his first NFL game, watching Hurts fly by him numerous times. Hutchinson finished with one tackle on the day.
“He’ll be better next week,” Campbell said, explaining that most rookies find their first game a blur. “He needed this.”
Well, if Hutchinson did, Lions fans didn’t. Because if the defense wasn’t going to win it, then the offense would have to.
And that just didn’t happen.
Let’s say this again, clear as can be. The Lions will go as far as Jared Goff can take them. Remember Goff? The quarterback? We’ve barely seen him since last year, but when the Lions needed him to counter Hurts, he couldn’t.
After a dazzling opening drive, Goff and the Lions offense went into a torpor that would have put a caffeinated Chihuahua to sleep. Three straight three-and-out series, followed by a pick-six interception on a Goff pass intended for T.J. Hockenson.
“A poor decision by me,” Goff said afterwards. “We left so much out there that we could have had…We felt as if we could have scored 50 today. … We shot ourselves in the foot all day.”
We hear that phrase so often after Lions games, you’d think they’d buy bulletproof cleats.
Yes, there is a bright side
Now, some will rightly note the 35 points the Lions scored Sunday. And that’s good, Others will note the 38 they allowed. And that’s bad. The truth is, the NFL is about five or six plays each game that turn the tide. Close games are commonplace. Close losses are part of a team trying to get over the hump.
The Lions are that kind of team. And there will be more heartbreakers, lots of them, before anyone around here sees a playoff game.
But there are green sprouts in Honolulu Blue Land. D’Andre Swift had a terrific day, starting with a breakaway 50-yard run on his first carry, and finishing with 144 yards on the ground and 31 more on passes. If he actually keeps this up, it’s a threat the Lions have only dreamt about since Barry Sanders split town.
“The execution up front was phenomenal,” Swift said. He’s right, the offensive line, even missing a starter, lived up to its hype most of the day, which portends well for the future.
So does the immediate schedule. I don’t know about you, but in my game-by-game projections for this year, I had the Lions losing this opener anyhow. The next three weeks may well determine their season. They get Washington at home, Minnesota on the road, and a rebuilding Seattle team back at Ford Field.
If the Lions are truly improved, they’ll need to win those games. After that comes the Patriots, Cowboys, Dolphins and Packers. Tough sledding there.
But that’s weeks away. For now, look on the bright side. As Campbell said, “the good news is we didn’t play very well, but we lost by three.”
The bad news is, they lost by three. And here in the real world, with no cameras, editors or dramatic music, three points can be the difference in games, seasons and careers.
Back to reality. You know how in old movies guys with black eyes would always joke, “You shoulda seen the other guy”?
That’s the problem with the NFL. There’s always the other guys. And as long as they’re a little bit better, you’re gonna have to work harder.