The future of the franchise …

by | Dec 29, 2010 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Here is what you missed. In the closing seconds, a swarm of Lions bull-rushed the Redskins, a blind, jolting hit by Kyle Vanden Bosh popped the ball free, and Ndamukong Suh picked up that bouncing pigskin and lumbered in for his first NFL touchdown.

That was icing on the cake.

We’d have been happy with cake.

Take that! And the Lions will take it. Suh’s touchdown Sunday was more than they needed to win and just what they needed to show it was no fluke. This was a mess of an afternoon, with yellow flags like raindrops and special teams’ triumphs and disasters and receivers dropping balls and kickers making tackles.

But finally, in front of countless empty seats in Ford Field, with the local TV audience blacked out, here was the victory the Lions desperately needed and had come so agonizingly close to in previous weeks.

“I want to put Detroit on notice: Don’t come ringing my doorbell tonight,” Jim Schwartz joked after the 37-25 Halloween victory. “I’ll be asleep. I’m tired. That was an NFL football game.”

What he meant was this: It had everything. Ebb and flow. Momentum swings. Big breaks. Crippling mistakes. But for once, the Lions (2-5) overcame their worst enemy – themselves – and have now, after seven games, equaled their victory total for the past two years combined, thanks largely to:

Washington’s nicest gift since the auto bailout.

Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson.

The future of the franchise …

Let’s focus on Stafford and Johnson. Despite having played 30 minutes of real football together in the past 10 months, there was a distinct connection between these two. It’s no accident Johnson caught more passes Sunday (nine for 101 yards) than in any game this year.

“It was big,” Johnson said of Stafford’s return to action. “There were certain situations where I was praying and hoping he saw what I saw. And he did.”

No knock on Shaun Hill. But the future of the Lions lies deeply in the relationship between the strong-armed Stafford and the strong-handed Johnson. It was deflated last year before it could really take off, and was shot down this year halfway through the opener, when Stafford went out with a shoulder injury.

Given that, it was amazing the two were so in sync Sunday. “We didn’t start fast,” Stafford admitted, “but we kept plugging. Calvin was great.”

Stafford’s first touchdown pass since Opening Day came in the second quarter, a short dump to Johnson that he dragged across the goal line with a defender on his ankles. That gave the Lions the lead, 7-0.

Their second hook-up came in the fourth quarter, a 7-yard strike that put Detroit ahead again, 20-19.

Their third and best came with a little more than 3 minutes left, a fourth-and-1. Stafford dropped back and threaded a pass through traffic to Johnson, who slid in front of a defender and sucked it in.

“Why that play?” someone asked Stafford.

“Uh … you know … he’s Calvin, so …”

Take that.

The monsters of the D-line …

Now it has been tradition, even when the Lions win, to find a moldy lining to the silver cloud. And sure, the cynical can point to the dumb penalties, the turnovers, the mountain of going-nowhere first-down plays or the pathetic kickoff coverage. (Washington had one 96-yard TD return and a 95-yarder called back.)

But you know what? These Lions really earned this. Not once in five losses did they fold tents. Not once did they point fingers or sound like losing was inevitable.

Quite the opposite. When someone asked Johnson about the future, he said, “We got a fresh new team, we got different motives and” – he laughed – “we got a hell of a defensive line.” When was the last time you heard that? The D-line had seven sacks – Suh had two on one drive! – and this was against Donovan McNabb, still considered fairly mobile.

So no jokes. The Lions came back three times from deficits. And for one blessedly healthy afternoon, they gave us a glimpse of what years of roster shuffling could mean. Stafford and Johnson? Neither here four years ago. Vanden Bosh and Suh? Neither here last year.

Yes, the Redskins played badly, but they had chances, too. When the game was up for grabs, one team grabbed it, and that’s all that counts.

Take that.

The Lions just did.


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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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