LIONS’ WRONGS END UP RIGHTOPENING WIN IS SLOPPY IN NEW ORLEANS

NEW ORLEANS — Here’s what hasn’t changed with the Lions in the millennium: The starting quarterback is still hurt. The backup quarterback is still rocky, and Stoney. The most reliable defensive player is Stephen Boyd. The most reliable offensive player is Jason Hanson. Yellow flags still fly when the Lions can least afford them.

Oh, and they won.

Well. You gotta change something.

In a season opener that felt as if it took half a season to play, the Lions didn’t grab victory as much as they juggled it, bobbled it, nearly dropped it and finally scooped it off the floor. But it counts. They are 1-0 — although they had to survive a botched field goal, a near safety, a fourth-quarter fumble and an interception returned for a touchdown to earn it.

Whew. I know today is Labor Day. But who knew beating the Saints required this much work?

“Did you guys feel you were lucky to come away with this one?” someone asked Boyd, after the Lions’ 14-10, uh, win.

“I don’t understand what you mean by ‘come away with it,’ ” Boyd said. “We didn’t steal anything here.”

True. Much of it was given to them. Thank the schedule makers, who handed the Lions a Week 1 opponent that finds more ways to blow a lead than Bill Bradley. The Saints are traditionally a team that surrenders the season during the opening kickoff. On this day, they seemed to skulk off in defeat, then run back on the field, hopeful and optimistic, then skulk off again.

Yet despite New Orleans’ five fumbles, 12 penalties and generally chaotic play, it wasn’t until Boyd knocked away a fourth-down pass with less than a minute to go that Detroit was assured of coming home with a victory. Such dangerous living will not work next Sunday against Washington or the following Sunday against Tampa Bay.

But this was this Sunday.

“You take what you can get,” said Lions linebacker Tracy Scroggins.

After all, it’s a holiday weekend.

Howard still provides magic

Speaking of holiday celebration, how about that run by Desmond Howard, who remains one of the most explosive players in the game? His third-quarter punt return had everything. Glory. Agony. Celebration. Dejection.

It was also the only touchdown the Lions scored all day. (Neither Detroit nor New Orleans could cross the end zone with its offense, a pretty sad state.)

Howard provided the next-best thing. He took a third-quarter punt at his own 5
— “I probably shouldn’t have fielded it,” he admitted — and shot forward, cut left, and was gone. Ninety-five yards down the sideline. And, Desmond being Desmond — never one to enter the end zone without a new move — he dragged his back foot across the line in slow motion, then began his celebration in earnest.

Touchdown! Touchdown! The Lions were going crazy in the end zone. But wait. Down the field was a yellow flag. Now the Saints crowd began yelling. Penalty! Penalty! Howard, who already had fallen to his knees in apparent thanks to the Almighty, heard a Saints player come up behind him.

“Nice run, Howard, but it’s coming back,” he said.

Desmond fell to his chest.

“Did you change your prayer from ‘Thank you, Lord’ to ‘Please, Lord’?” he was asked.

“Hahahahaha,” Howard said. “Yeah.”

It worked. The officials — who seemed more confused than either team, and that’s saying something — announced that the flag was actually on the kicking team. Sort of. They thought.

At any rate, the touchdown stood.

And it would be the margin of victory.

Here is how futile this game became: In one seven-minute stretch of the fourth quarter, the Saints fumbled, and the Lions fumbled right back. The Lions committed pass interference; the Saints followed with holding. The Saints had a field goal blocked. The Lions blew a field goal with a high snap.

Hello? Is the object still to win? Or is the game now just a backdrop for Dennis Miller material?

All wasn’t bad for Lions

Never mind. A win is a win.

And before we move on to next week, a nod of acknowledgment to several key plays: James Jones blocking a Saints field goal try. Kurt Schulz plucking an interception out of the air. Two sacks by Tracy Scroggins. And overall fine play by Boyd, who not only made the last saving defensive stop, but also forced a fumble and led the team in tackles.

If the key guys stay healthy, the Lions’ defense and special teams have a chance to do something really good this year.

As for the offense? Well. It was …there. James Stewart, in his first game as a Lion, definitely runs into people more than Barry Sanders. He had several nice gains. He also had too many Barry-like zero-yardage runs.

Give him time. It will take awhile to jell with this line. At least Stewart carried 25 times for 78 yards. No Detroit running back had more than 19 carries in a game last year — and that was probably 19 more than we wanted.

As for the quarterback, Stoney Case, subbing for the injured Charlie Batch? Well. Let’s just say, we hope Charlie gets better. Case did his best, but he’s not going to beat any good teams with the game he brought Sunday. Although he completed more than half his passes, many were simple dumps. He averaged three yards per passing play, which is not exactly the deep end of the pool.

True, Stoney hit a couple of nice routes to Johnnie Morton. But he couldn’t get the team in the end zone, he didn’t make big plays (he failed nine of 11 times to convert a third-down pass), and, on Sunday anyhow, accuracy did not appear to be his strong point. He threw high. He threw wide. He threw long. He threw in-between receivers.

His sixth attempt of the day was his best completion; unfortunately, it went into the hands of a New Orleans safety, who returned it for the Saints’ only touchdown.

“I felt good at times. I felt bad at times,” he said.

Hmm. Stoney Dickens?

Then again, that sort of sums up the whole day, doesn’t it? What can you do when neither team scores an offensive touchdown — brag?

No. You take the win the way other teams take them from you, and you get ready for another opponent. It might be wise to remind the Lions that next week against the Redskins is definitely not a holiday.

In fact, the next time the Lions play this dangerously and win, we’ll have to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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