EASTRUTHERFORD, N.J. — The mistake people make about football is thinking one team wants to win the game more than the other. Wrong. Both teams want to win it. One team is willing to take it.
That’s the thing Lions fans should be happiest about in Sunday’s thumping of the New York Giants. Not the 31-21 final score — although it was enough to make Bush and Gore green with envy — but the attitude with which it was done. Put it this way: If Sunday were a dinner table, the Lions ate their portion, the Giants’ portion, and the cooks’ portion.
Gobble, gobble. Thanksgiving week begins with a carcass, a Giant carcass. Whatever problem the Lions have this season, a quick trip to New Jersey might fix it. They call the Giants “Big Blue.” This morning, if I know fans here, it’s Big Blew.
But before you start thinking the Giants gave this game to Detroit, remember that they were 7-3 coming in, and this was a home game for them. The Lions, upon arrival in these swamplands, heard new coach Gary Moeller give them a
“behind enemy lines” speech. You know the one. Bad guys to the left. Bad guys to the right. No one there to protect you. Just the men in your platoon.
If you think that’s silly, you haven’t played football. Speeches like that still work — especially with a team like the Lions. And if there’s one early difference between the Moeller era and the Bobby Ross era, it’s that Lions players are inspired to act like they can take a game, instead of waiting for it to fall their way.
So here was Kurt Schulz, taking the ball away from a New York receiver, killing a Giants drive with the interception.
Here was Johnnie Morton taking the ball on a slant pattern — literally pulling it down from mid-air — and racing to the corner of the end zone for a touchdown.
Here was Desmond Howard, taking the ball and turning up the heat, skirting one man after another for a 50-yard punt return.
Here was James Jones, thumping into Tiki Barber so hard the ball popped loose.
Here was Larry Foster, flying past the defenders to stuff a punt.
Here was Herman Moore, grabbing a touchdown in the end zone.
Take this. Take that.
Take it home.
‘A state of mind’
“You know what the difference is under Mo?” a smiling Morton said in the locker room after catching six passes for 78 yards. “It’s like a prize fight. Instead of going in just hoping we don’t get knocked out, we’re going in seeking a knockout. It’s a state of mind. It’s attitude.”
Attitude. You saw it on the last play of the game, with the stadium virtually empty, when Robert Porcher wrapped up quarterback Kerry Collins and threw him to the grass. More important, you saw it at the start of the game, when a reverse the Lions ran was sniffed out by the Giants’ defense and stopped for a loss.
With Ross, that might have been the big, “Uh-oh. It’s one of those days.” Instead, Sunday, the Lions shrugged it off and came back with the best second quarter they’ve played in a long time, scoring three touchdowns, recovering two fumbles and blocking a punt.
The game was over by halftime.
This is quite a change from a few weeks ago, when the Lions were sleepwalking through first halves and praying they didn’t run out of time before catching up in the second. Moeller acknowledges an emphasis on preparation, but, to be fair, it’s not like Ross told his team, “Take the first half off.”
“The difference under Coach Moeller is that he’s passionate,” said Howard, who won a Heisman Trophy when Moeller coached him at Michigan. “He still uses a lot of that college stuff.
“The other day he called some of us ‘upperclassmen.’ “
Howard howled his trademark hyena-like laugh.
“But the thing is, it doesn’t matter if he says upperclassmen or veterans — it’s the way he says it. I wish some of the guys in the press would ask Moeller the exact same questions they asked Coach Ross and listen to the difference, not only in what he says but how he says it.”
Whatever he’s saying, so far, it’s working. Moeller has won his first two games and the Lions are 7-4. With Sunday’s losses by Tampa Bay and the Giants, Detroit is sitting much prettier for the playoffs than the day Ross said he was giving up the chase.
(As a result, I am tempted, because I like Moeller, to tell him to quit right now and retire as the Lions’ only unbeaten coach ever. But there’s a game in three days. And the Lions usually win on Thanksgiving.)
A happier QB
A few words about Charlie Batch. I’m not sure I ever saw him smile as much as he did Sunday. Not that everything he did was phenomenal. Yes, he completed 20 of 32 for 225 yards and three touchdowns, but he threw a late interception that was, at best, ill advised.
Actually, Moeller called it “a jughead throw.”
Batch replied: “That’s OK. He’s right.”
(Funny. I expected Charlie to say, “Who’s Jughead?”)
But this is what winning does to a quarterback. Batch looked comfortable and happy because he wasn’t running for his life all day (he was sacked just once). And he wasn’t cringing at how his coach would react to mistakes.
“I just went out and played,” he said, still smiling. “I didn’t over-think like I’d been doing before.”
It’s like that song “I’ve got a new att-i-tude.” The Lions now think they can dictate things, and are not cowering in fear of their gaffes.
They are near the top of the league in takeaways, which is another way of saying they make plays when they have to. And they made a batch of them Sunday
(three recovered fumbles, one interception, one blocked punt, two great punt returns and more than half of their third downs converted.)
“It’s attitude,” Moeller said. “Heck, the NFL is just like college that way.”
Let’s hope not. Colleges are closed on Thanksgiving.
And whether this lasts through Thursday’s game is anyone’s guess. But if the home loss to Miami depressed you, then this upset victory should excite you. The Lions played, most of the game, like a team you can be proud of.
Take this. Take that. A few more games like this, and critics who buried the Lions at 5-4 will be eating less turkey than crow.
MITCH ALBOM will be signing copies of his book “Tuesdays with Morrie” at noon-1 p.m. Saturday at Barnes & Noble, 6800 Orchard Lake Road, West Bloomfield. Contact Albom at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to his radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).