SILVERDOME STILL BIG TOP, BUT THE LIONS STILL WON

The coach did not wear a clown-loud shirt, he did not smoke a clown-like cigar, and he did not make any clownish faces on the sidelines. But let’s be honest, the circus was still in town.

Fumbles. Interceptions. Blown punts. Dropped passes. And that was in the first quarter. I have long been opposed to the length of the preseason. I am still opposed. Now I think it’s not long enough.

“That first quarter was like a nightmare,” Herman Moore admitted after the season opener. “I had to ask myself, ‘Did I get enough sleep last night? Am I sleeping right now?’ “

No, Herman. Those were the fans.

But before we get into some of the finer points of this game — including the often tried but rarely imitated “five-punt play” — let me point out something that probably escaped much of the audience.

The Lions won.

Really. They won. They’re 1-0. Yes, they fumbled six times, yes, Barry Sanders gained 33 yards, yes, Scott Mitchell threw nine straight incompletions, yes, they approached the opponent with an attitude of — as Moore later put it —
“they’re dead, and we’re dead.”

But they still won, 28-17. Mostly because Bobby Ross’s new team followed an important football fundamental. If you’re going to play like Shirley, make sure it’s against a team that plays like Laverne.

Thank you, Atlanta Falcons.

If the Lions fumbled, the Falcons fumbled back. If the Lions gave them field position, the Falcons threw an interception or missed a kick. Finally, when the Lions desperately wanted the ball, the Falcons gave it to them. Detroit’s much-maligned defense made three interceptions in the last six minutes, and Reggie Brown returned one for a clinching touchdown.

“They hung in there,” Ross said after his first Motown win. “That’s what we’re gonna have to do all year. Stay after them. Like a chicken on a june bug.”

Right.

Huh?

A rare treat: The ‘five-punt play’

Well, whatever chickens do to june bugs, I’m sure the Lions are capable of doing to somebody, too. This is clearly Ross’s team now — in language and in action — although admittedly there were moments Sunday when fans wondered if a certain Fred Flintstonish fellow were still calling the shots.

There was, for example, the time Tommie Boyd ran smack into Glyn Milburn, who was trying to catch a punt. Or the time Mitchell bounced the ball off Sanders’ torso into the hands of a defender. Or Johnnie Morton letting two passes go through his hands.

Of course, I’ve already mentioned the famous “five-punt play.”

What, you say? You never heard of the “five-punt play”? Where one team punts five times without changing downs? It was right there Sunday, less than 10 minutes into the season. Atlanta’s Dan Stryzinski punted once, it came back on an Atlanta penalty. Punted again, came back on an Atlanta penalty. Punted again, came back on a Detroit penalty. Punted again, came back on an Atlanta penalty.

On the fifth kick — after Stryzinski was given intravenous fluids for exhaustion — he got one off with no flags. Milburn, who passed his 27th birthday while waiting, immediately called for a fair catch, which should be made into a United Way commercial as an act of human kindness.

“That’s the longest I’ve ever been on the field for a punt,” Milburn admitted.
“We don’t take five straight punts in practice.”

Five punts? One play? For the first time in history, “hang time” referred to a coach’s plan for his players.

Did I mention that the Lions won the game?

All’s well that — finally — ends well

I need to keep reminding myself because, well, for one thing, it’s hard to believe. We came into this season expecting the Lions’ offense to rack it up, and on Sunday the defense scored just as many touchdowns. Scott Mitchell — who will get better — showed that rust never sleeps, overthrowing several important passes. And in the second half, the Lions’ offense went one-two-three-punt on five of its first six possessions.

But they won.

I love saying that.

“It was frustrating,” Mitchell said. “What’s exciting for me is that the defense played great.”

What’s exciting for me is that the game is over, and we don’t have to watch such awful football any longer. Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for the Lions. But I don’t get it. These teams have seven weeks of camp, four exhibition games, and they come out bobbling and dropping like the first day of peewee?

(And another thing. How about the Lions opening against a team like the Dallas Cowboys for once? Why is it always Atlanta or Tampa or Minnesota? Whom did we tick off on the scheduling committee?)

Ah, well. I guess if the result is right, nobody cares, least of all the 61,244 paid patrons at the Silverdome. I say “paid” because the paid attendance is now the only number the Lions will reveal. Never mind if 20,000 don’t show up, it is now apparently more important that the seat is paid for than occupied.

Personally, if I were the Lions, I’d worry more about actual bodies in attendance. They might need them for the punting team.

Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book “Tuesdays With Morrie” this Friday, 7-8 p.m. at Little Professor, Ann Arbor, and on Saturday, noon-1 p.m. at Borders, Birmingham, and 2-3 p.m at Barnes & Noble, Rochester Hills.

To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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