by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The summer’s over, the kids are back to school and the NFL’s first snap is just a day away. Obviously, it’s time for the Lions to hire their running backs.

Hello, Rudi Johnson and Marcus Thomas.

Good-bye, Tatum Bell and Aveion Cason.

Never mind that all summer long, we have been hearing how the Lions are going to run, run, run. Never mind that coaches insist you need a full six weeks of training camp to get their system down. Never mind that the season begins Sunday at 1 p.m. on the road, in Atlanta, and Detroit now has only one back on the roster who has ever taken a snap in a Lions uniform – and he’s a rookie!

Relax. It’s pro football.

“You gotta keep your eye on the swivel in the NFL, man,” Johnson told me Tuesday.

And all this time, I had my eye on the ball.

The swivel has swiveled, and a veteran from Cincinnati (Johnson) and a fifth-round rookie draft pick from San Diego (Thomas) are now in. They will have today’s practice, Thursday’s practice and Friday’s run through before boarding a plane Saturday for a Sunday game that counts.

No offense, but if running is as integral to the Lions as they claim, why are they teaching it like a night-school class? Two-thirds of the running backs are just now getting their uniforms? Isn’t that like deciding to do “Hair” a week before the curtain rises, and hiring a few hippies figuring they’ll know the lines? A game of musical running backs

I asked Johnson how quickly a back can figure things out in the NFL, hoping he’d say, hey, you give a good runner a football, he’ll find daylight if his new uniform says “Nagasaki Dragons.”

“I wish,” Johnson said, laughing. “But not at this level. It’s very complicated. It’s very complex. It’s very …”

He then listed a whole litany of things: running plays, pass protection plays, offensive line schemes, fullback blocking. There was more, but I ran out of paper.

“I’m looking forward to it,” Johnson said, adding, “I got the next six or seven months to put my focus into that.”

Somebody should tell Johnson the Lions’ season is only four months – it just feels like six or seven.

Or maybe he’s doing his preseason after the regular season ends. After all, Johnson hasn’t rushed the football yet this summer. A hamstring injury sidelined him, and it was that injury, and last year’s version on a different leg, that prompted the Bengals to part with their soon-to-be-29-year-old former Pro Bowler, in favor of a younger guy.

Which is nothing the Lions haven’t done themselves. They dropped Kevin Jones after several injuries threatened to classify him as damaged goods. He signed with Chicago, where he’ll split time with a rookie named Matt Forte.

Meanwhile, Johnson will split time with a rookie in Detroit, Kevin Smith.

Keep your eye on the swivel, man. The realities of the ground game

None of this will comfort Lions fans, who, in the off-season, watched their team go from Pass Happy to Run-Ho! Can the Lions really become a rushing force? Do they have the horses up front? Do they have the horses behind? And what about all those receivers they kept drafting? Are Calvin Johnson and Roy Williams primarily here to burst downfield, slow to a trot, pull up and say to the defender, “Three yards and a cloud of dust, baby.”

I doubt it. Running the football is always a great idea – until you hit second-and-nine. Or third-and-seven. Or fourth-and-six. And the Lions have seen plenty of those.

But Rudi can’t get distracted. After years as a solid staple of the mighty Cincinnati offense (or as some Bengals watchers called him, “the sane Johnson”), he is now a Lion. That fast. And Thomas, who not long ago was practicing by the Pacific Ocean, must quickly make do with Great Lakes and playing indoors.

“It’s a business, man,” Johnson said. “You keep moving forward.”

At least the Lions hope he’ll go in that direction. You wonder what they saw in less-than-an-hour’s workout that Cincinnati didn’t see. And if that workout, of a man who just came back from injury, was enough to dump Tatum Bell, then how reliable was Bell going to be?

It’s all part of the NFL piñata, where you grab what bursts from someone else’s cuts. Maybe the Lions upgraded. Maybe there’s a reason these two backs were let go. All we know for sure is, Johnson and Thomas have a lot to learn – and quickly.

“I don’t have nothing else to do,” Johnson said.

Kind of how we approach Sundays.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or


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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.

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