ONLY LIONS CAN START BY LOOKING FINISHED

ATLANTA – This is why I never watch the exhibition season.

Did that really happen? Was it really that awful? Shut it down before it worsens. It’s a joke. It’s a tragedy. It’s as depressing as the Kwame thing, but not as interesting.

There are few truisms in the NFL, but one of them is this: When the Atlanta Falcons put a whupping on you, it’s time to close shop.

Oh, wait. You can’t.

That was just the season opener.

Somebody knock me out. Wake me up when this is over, if this – meaning the 2008 Lions season – is going to be as bad as it was in Atlanta on Sunday afternoon.

Before a half-empty stadium, in a city that has no expectations, against a rookie quarterback, against a rookie coach, against a team whose former star passer sits in a jail cell, the Lions had their butts handed to them.

By the Falcons? Somebody slap me. Atlanta is arguably the worst team in the NFL, but that argument has a new contender today. The Lions have no claim to being any better than worst. Not until they prove it.

“Don’t be trying to write us off,” defensive captain Cory Redding warned, after the 34-21 loss. “We’re good. We just didn’t show up today.”

Actually, Cory, if you didn’t show up, it’d be a forfeit, and the score would have been closer.

Question: If we can’t write you off when you don’t show for your season opener, what exactly can we write? Can’t anybody tackle around here?

How about this? Led by a 23-year-old quarterback, Matt Ryan, who had never played an NFL game, and two running backs, Michael Turner and Jerious Norwood, who would give a month’s salary to have Detroit on the schedule next week, the Falcons scored in the first 87 seconds (Ryan’s first career pass went for a 62-yard touchdown) and had a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter.

They gained 318 yards on the ground, with 220 going to Turner, who had never had more than 502 yards in a SEASON! You know how many 200-yard games there were in NFL all last season? Three. Two by Adrian Peterson, who gets to face the Lions twice this year. He’s drooling already.

On Sunday, Turner and Norwood ripped through the Detroit defense like machetes ripping through palm leaves. Every time you looked up, they seemed to be pounding the Lions’ front and the Lions’ middle for 10 yards, 12 yards, 14 yards. When they got tired of running past them, they just ran through them.

“What happened?” Rod Marinelli was asked.

“The way I look at it, and I want to watch more film this week,” he said, “I think the main problem was our tackling.

No. Really? The tackling? Wow.

Honestly, Rod. Is film necessary? You could feel the breeze up under your shirt – every time a Lions defender flailed and missed.

The worst part is that the Lions, before this game, proclaimed themselves the Team of the Run. Instead, rookie rusher Kevin Smith, who did pretty well, saw the “new” offense revert to old desperation passing, while the opponent gobbled up yards.

“The worst thing you can do,” Smith said, glumly, “is to see another back run for 200 yards.”

Stick around, kid. We can show you worse. The familiar refrains return

Now, if all this seems overly harsh, the Lions cannot cry foul. It has been Marinelli telling us all year the defense would be better. It has been the players telling us things would turn around. It has been Matt Millen telling us he has the right guys.

Well, unless they get graded for swinging and missing, it’s hard to buy that. These were the Falcons, for Pete’s sake! This was supposed to be a victory, the start of perhaps three straight – Green Bay at home this Sunday, a tepid-looking San Francisco after that. It was supposed to validate the 4-0 exhibition season, to be the good start to the good year that the good vibrations folks have been predicting.

Instead, it’s another anvil dropped on the foot, another banana peel, another chorus of “it’s just one loss” and “wait till next week,” which we’ve heard so often in Detroit, it could cut grooves in its own record.

An egg laid. A skunk gassed. There is nothing good about this opener, except that it is over.

“How disappointing is it?” I asked Marinelli.

“The word I would use is determined …” he said. “I wouldn’t use your word.”

It’s not my word, Coach. It’s in the dictionary.

Under the Lions photo.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com.

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