WE MAY NOT dress as well as New Yorkers, we may not tan as well as Californians, we may not do chowder as well as New Englanders, or barbecue a T-bone as well as a Texan. But one thing we know how to do in Detroit is make noise.
To paraphrase Andy Garcia in Godfather III, “You want we should make ’em deaf?” We’re your town.
And so, when the Lions desperately needed an audio boost, a little shot of the old Silverdome ear-rattle — on Halloween night, on national TV — how could the locals refuse?
You want we should make ’em deaf? Give us da order.
Here were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, thinking they had just pulled within a touchdown of the Lions as the third quarter wound down. Then came that newest of NFL inventions, the replay challenge. Bobby Ross believed Warrick Dunn did not reach the end zone before his knee went down. And, to the general amazement of the press box, the refs admitted they were wrong.
Six points were stripped off the board. It went from 17-9 to 17-3.
Now, that would excite most fans — let alone a mass of sugar-smacked patrons who’d been eating Halloween candy all day. But then came the challenge of keeping the points off the board. As Tampa tried a first-and-goal from the 1, the Lions’ defense, which hadn’t allowed a touchdown in seven quarters, exhorted the fans to scream, holler, belch.
The noise descended like a shower. Tampa’s
Mike Alstott took the handoff — and was stuffed.
Hey. This was fun. Again, the Lions’ players turned to the crowd. This time the noise was even louder. Rumbling. Thunder. Like a jet engine. And Tampa’s tight end, Patrick Hape, perhaps unable to hear the snap count, flinched too soon, the refs threw the flag. Illegal procedure.
Back five yards.
Whoo, boy. Now the crowd was truly into it. Husbands were urging their wives to scream. The beer guys were urging the hot dog guys to scream. An air horn could’ve sold for 1,000 bucks.
Again, in this cauldron of noise, Alstott got the handoff, and was drilled by Detroit’s Terry Fair and Mark Carrier. The ball came loose — FUMMMMMMBLE! — and the Lions recovered.
And that was the game, for all intents and purposes. Tampa would not score again. The Lions leapt and pointed to the roaring crowd.
For one brief, shining moment in this beleaguered franchise’s history, the team and the fans were one.
It was Halloween, and the Lions came dressed as winners.
Who needs those other guys?
“I know it wasn’t sold out tonight, but it sure sounded like it was sold out,” said a smiling Luther Elliss, after the Lions shut down Tampa, 20-3.
And folks, that’s five wins, two losses. Maybe that doesn’t excite them in Green Bay or Dallas, but in these parts, five wins, two losses means a lot.
For starters, it means the Lions can lose the rest of their games and they’d still have as good a record as they had all last year.
That was last year — with Barry Sanders, with Scott Mitchell, with a healthy Herman Moore and Bryant Westbrook.
Five wins, two losses. First place in the Central Division. This from a team that uses second-string linemen and third-string running backs. This from a team that lost its star, but found its story line.
Five wins, two losses. It wasn’t just the win Sunday night, it was the defense, it was the consistency. It was the smarts. Here were the Bucs, known for sacking quarterbacks. They do it to everyone. So when they came after Charlie Batch, what does he do? He lets them in, then dumps a last-second pass to a streaking Johnnie Morton over the middle for 18 yards. He lets them in, then shovels a little toss to Sedrick Irvin for 13 yards.
Meanwhile, the Lions — who supposedly don’t have a running game — got 123 yards from Greg Hill against a Tampa defense that supposedly doesn’t allow 123 yards to running backs. It was like this all night. Lions in control. They committed no turnovers, while squirting the ball loose twice from the Bucs. One of those was returned for a touchdown. Opportunity knocks, Lions answer.
Smart, smart, smart.
No tricks, just the treats
“Has it occurred to you that you’ve now won as many games as you did all last year?” Stephen Boyd, the linebacker, was asked after the win.
“I’ve thought about that, yeah,” he said smiling. But he did not gloat. This has become the calling card of the 1999 Lions: no big highs or lows, just keep the head down and wait for the next dragon.
But if the players won’t sell their accomplishments, then, for a moment, allow me. This is a team that supposedly lost its only great talent, yet it has already beaten Seattle, with the great coach, Mike Holmgren, and Green Bay, with the great Brett Favre, and Minnesota, with the great Randy Moss, and Tampa, with the great Warren Sapp.
If you catch a pattern here, that’s because there is one. The Lions don’t get fazed anymore. Unlike previous years, their results do not seem predestined. They’re not automatically going to lose because they’re on the road, or on grass, or playing a certain team. They are going to do what they can do, and so far, it’s been far more good than bad.
Maybe they keep playing this way, and the crowd keeps making noise, and we have a whale of a surprise in the last year of football in this century.
Who knows? It’s Lions fans’ nature to expect the trick behind the treat. But maybe this year, there’s really candy in the bag.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM