MINNEAPOLIS — It was a summer afternoon better suited to a barbecue, which might explain why the Lions played their season opener the way a kid roasts a marshmallow, toying with it, sticking it closer to the fire, closer to the fire — oops, it’s in the fire.
What a gooey mess.
See if this sounds familiar: The Lions go on the road to open the season, they mess around, make mistakes and blow a game they should have won in the final seconds. Bingo! It’s last year all over. And you thought hamburgers and hot dogs were the only constants of Labor Day weekend.
“I can’t dwell on it,” said a disgruntled Wayne Fontes, after his Lions threw away a 17-13 defeat to the Minnesota Vikings. “If I dwell on it, it’ll drive me crazy. If my team dwells on it, it’ll drive them crazy.”
Yeah? How about the rest of us?
How many times must Detroit fans endure the same story? A talented team, playing beneath itself on the road, where the Lions haven’t won an opener in 10 years. There was nothing intimidating about the Metrodome on Sunday. No wind. No snow. No Warren Moon for the whole second half. Heck, it wasn’t even sold-out!
Yet somehow the Lions made the hard plays and blew the easy ones. They drove to field-goal range, then messed up the snap on the field-goal attempt. They made some unmakable catches, but whiffed the most makable of passes. They sacked the opposing quarterback, but let the most dangerous receiver get behind them for the winning touchdown.
The defense, last year’s weak spot, held Minnesota to one touchdown, while the offense, the best in the NFL last year, sputtered like a bad school bus.
And quarterback Scott Mitchell played like a kid who forgot his books. Out of sync
“I don’t know what to say,” Mitchell muttered, facing the barrage of cameras and notepads after this nightmare was over. “We can’t win when we make that many mistakes — I should say my mistakes.”
Give him credit for facing the music. Even if the music was “I Want You Back.” Interceptions? Mitchell threw four. He only threw 12 last year.
Now, it’s one thing to get picked off in the final seconds (which Mitchell did). It’s another thing to put the ball smack in the other team’s hands in the first quarter (which Mitchell did), and another to overthrow your receivers regularly, forcing them to reach back or dive and have the ball bounce off their hands into someone else’s (which Mitchell also did).
It was that kind of day. The Lions kept giving the ball away, holding the Vikings, getting the ball back, driving downfield, then giving it away again. Seven different times, the Lions got to the Vikings’ 31-yard line, and only three times did they score any points — and two of those were field goals. That, in the business world, is what they call “a failure to capitalize.”
Even with all that, Detroit had a chance to win in the final minute, driving 46 yards in 26 seconds. But on first down from the Vikings’ 24, Mitchell threw straight into the hands of a Minnesota defender — his fourth interception — and that was that.
“I just played poorly,” Mitchell said. “The line did its job. The receivers did their job. Barry did a great job.”
Ah. Barry. Let us pause for a brief but lovely moment to appreciate the quietest weapon since the torpedo. Sanders was his usual brilliant self, gliding through traffic for 163 yards. Unfortunately, the one time another running back took a handoff, Eric Lynch, he fumbled it away two yards from a touchdown.
Hey, I said it was a brief moment.
The moments that will resonate more, unfortunately, are the ugly ones. The dumb mistakes. Van Malone blowing his coverage on Cris Carter’s winning touchdown catch. A penalty on the Lions’ final kickoff. The low snap that blew a field goal chance. And of course, Mitchell’s passes, which often floated, sank and went wide of their intended targets. The quarterback — who is tremendously talented — will pick up his game. But will someone else let down? Isn’t that the pattern of the Lions early in the season?
“It’s one of 16,” Fontes sighed. “Just one of 16.”
Funny. It seems I’ve heard that line before. On the brighter side
Now, I should point out some positive signs of this game — because there were a few. The defense played hard and aggressive, considering how much time it spent out there. The front line of Henry Thomas, Luther Elliss, Tracy Scroggins and Robert Porcher seems better than last year’s version, and the secondary wasn’t burned anywhere near as much as people predicted. Sanders ran for the first time in his career without offensive tackle Lomas Brown as a teammate, and it didn’t seem to affect Barry one bit. And Moore (12 catches, 157 yards) is picking up where he left off last season.
Unfortunately, so are the Lions. If you count the season- ending playoff loss to Philadelphia, Detroit has thrown 10 interceptions in the last two games and have lost both.
I don’t get it. Isn’t that why they have a preseason? To work off the rust? There were pass plays Sunday where the Lions looked like a bicycle that had hung in the garage all winter.
Moore suggested that the offensive big guns “didn’t play together enough in preseason.” But wait. Isn’t a big part of preseason trying to keep your stars from getting hurt?
Can’t win for losing. Can’t win for playing it safe. The main thing the Lions have to do now is, as Fontes suggests, forget about this. Don’t let it become their identity. Don’t let them become “the team that finds a way to lose.” That has been a Detroit trademark far too long, and the plain truth is, this is too talented a collection of players to wear those clothes. It would be better if next week’s game against Tampa Bay were on the road, because the Lions don’t need confidence in winning before a happy Silverdome crowd, but they do need it in foreign territory.
Alas, you can’t change the schedule. For several years, I’ve been saying we shouldn’t start football season on Labor Day weekend. It’s not just because it’s too dang hot. It’s not just because you can barely get into a baseball pennant race without seeing John Madden’s mug on the tube.
It’s also because, when you start football on Labor Day weekend, somebody is gonna have his holiday ruined.
And it’s usually a Lions fan.
“This is terrible,” Brett Perriman said in the locker room, shaking his head. “It seems to happen to us over and over. We should’ve left here a winner.”
Should’ve eaten that marshmallow, too.