by | Sep 8, 2003 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Before we speak of what was won on Sunday, let us mention what was lost. A sentence. “Same old Lions.” That was what was lost.

You can say many things about this opening game, from the sublime (the Lions scored more points than they have in 30 years’ worth of season openers) to the ridiculous (I actually saw Charles Rogers catch a pass off the crossbar),but you can’t say “we’ve seen it all before.”

Nuh-uh. Not when Joey Harrington throws four touchdown passes. Not when Rogers, in his NFL debut, catches two of them. Not when Dre’ Bly, newly acquired through free agency, returns an interception for a touchdown. Not when Steve Mariucci is the coach slapping Lions players on the helmets and — gasp! — speaking coherently in the postgame news conference.

None of that was seen before. Forty-two points? No fumbles? No sacks? No interceptions? Why, the whole thing was enough to make us forget baseball!

Wait. We already did that.

OK. It was enough to make us forget last season. At least for a week. This 42-24 victory over Arizona at Ford Field had a fresh efficiency and speed to it — even if it did last three hours, 26 minutes. Harrington’s passes had a laser-like quality. Eddie Drummond raced a punt return for a touchdown. Rogers simply separated from defenders, smoke coming from his feet.

Same old Lions? Sorry. Not the same. And not old. Harrington is 24. Drummond is 23. Rogers is 22. Let’s face it, folks. There’s a bunch of new faces in town this fall. And most of them don’t know from Lions curses or haunted history.

“Hey, I can’t remember the last time the Lions won a home opener,” Rogers said after the victory.

No fair. He grew up here.

What a catch!

But all right, let’s begin with the local legend rookie. Everyone around the Lions wanted to downplay expectations — “I can see Charles going through this year what I went through last year,” Harrington predicted — but when the whistle blew Sunday afternoon, there he was, the showy, No. 2 overall draft pick from Saginaw High and Michigan State, as a starting wide receiver.

And there he was, catching Detroit’s first touchdown of the year.

And there he was, diving into the end zone for Detroit’s second touchdown of the year.

And there he was, drawing double coverage as early as the second quarter.

They can downplay all they want. The hype is self-inflating.

“Yeah, I noticed the double coverage,” Rogers said in the locker room afterward. “I just smiled a little to myself.”

And he smiled again. He wore an oversized Barry Sanders jersey for his first postgame interview, which was not without its irony. You’d have to go back to Barry to remember this much anticipation for an offensive rookie’s opener.

Rogers finished with four catches for 38 yards and two touchdowns, but he cannot be measured in statistics alone. The threat of his speed changed the Arizona coverage — enough to allow Harrington to find open receivers. Fullback Cory Schlesinger caught two huge passes — one a touchdown — that might not have been if not for Rogers’ threat.

“He just draws defenders,” Harrington said.

Meanwhile, the quarterback drew praise — from coaches and fans alike. He was wickedly efficient, hitting four touchdowns with just 17 completions. No interceptions. No sacks. “I don’t even remember him forcing a pass into coverage,” Mariucci said.

Here is what you want in a sophomore quarterback: an indication that something new has clicked in since last year. Seeing Harrington’s relaxed body language Sunday, his darting eyes, his commanding decision-making, it looks like it has.

A new boss in town

And then there’s the new coach. Mariucci. He was surprisingly emotional after the victory, appearing to choke up a few times.

“This is the beginning to what I felt seven months ago when I came here,” he said. He looked over at two of his children. “It’s great to be home. It’s great to have my family here. . . .”

Then he cleared his throat. “But we can’t spend a lot of time on that. We have a ton of mistakes to correct. . . .”

No knock on Marty Mornhinweg. But it was nice to hear a guy make a transition in thought and not feel as if you suffered whiplash.

Mariucci, if all goes well, will bring a sense of organization to this franchise that has been sorely lacking through the Marty/Bobby/Wayne/Darryl eras. When he speaks, you aren’t embarrassed for him. (Think if you can say that for the last handful of coaches.)

And when players speak of him, they talk about knowing what they’re doing, being on the same page. That may be assumed in other cities. It hasn’t been around here.

Having said all this — and a quick nod to the defense, which stuffed the Arizona ground game, and to the special teams, which scored one touchdown and forced a critical muffed punt — these were still the Arizona Cardinals. You know? The lowly Arizona Cardinals? They are not a very good team.

Just the same, the Lions lost to them last year.

This is not last year.

No, the Lions are not contenders. They’re not even a .500 team, most likely. But they’re not the same. They’re not the “same old.”

After his fourth touchdown pass Sunday, which gave Detroit an 11-point lead, Harrington marched up and down the Lions’ sideline, scowling and yelling like a seasoned winner. “Now finish it!” he screamed. “Finish it!”

They finished it.

Now, continue it.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also hear “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

Subscribe for bonus content and giveaways!