EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Zack Follett lay motionless on the ground, the victim of a helmet-to-helmet collision. In the crowd of players gathered around him, Brandon Pettigrew moved in and out, trying for a closer look. He and Follett, a Lions linebacker, had been rookies together last year, they had bonded through their first NFL season, trying, as Pettigrew would later say, “to keep our heads above water.”
Now Pettigrew was only hoping to see Follett lift his head at all. The medics strapped him to a board, preparing to cart him off. Pettigrew drew in close enough to see his teammate’s face. Follett opened his eyes.
“Zack Â it’s ‘Grew,” Brandon said. “I gotcha, man.”
Moments later, Follett was en route to a hospital, and Pettigrew and the rest of the Lions were trying desperately to win the game. They had gathered on the field, a team united, dedicated to winning this thing not only for themselves but for their fallen teammate. And here they were, driving in the final seconds, advancing to the Giants’ 38, and Drew Stanton dropped back and spotted Pettigrew, of all people, wide open! Perfect, right? He threw high, Pettigrew jumped for the ball Â
And it went through his hands and was picked off.
Lions lose again. Quarterback help is on the way
And this is why, if you’re just tuning into our Detroit football opera, it is so maddening to be a fan of this team. Because in a better world – heck, in the same world with a different uniform – Pettigrew catches that ball, and his team wins, and it ends a record three-year slump of winless road games, and we’ve got a semi-happy story.
Doesn’t work that way. Not in silver and blue.
And yet you don’t want to throw a pie at these Lions. They work so hard. Then they shoot their own feet. They make great defensive stops. Then they draw a penalty. They move the ball. Then they fumble. They dedicate themselves to a fallen teammate Â
Then they can’t deliver.
“I take it on myself,” Pettigrew said of the final mistake. “Big-time players make those catches.”
The Lions are not big-time players. Not yet. They want to be. Under Jim Schwartz they’re trying – harder than they have in years. But it’s too many dumb penalties (11 Sunday, for 91 yards). Too many turnovers (three Sunday, all painful). Too many defensive breakdowns. And too many plays that require a great starting quarterback – while they’re stuck with backups.
The good news is, we saw Matthew Stafford run on the field Sunday. The bad news is, he only did it because the Lions were out of QBs. Shaun Hill left with a forearm injury. Stanton got rocked by a Giants defender.
Fortunately for Stafford’s injured shoulder, Stanton got back in there before a snap was taken. But Stanton, a brave and willing quarterback who plays like a three-wheeled race car, is still third-string. You can’t be surprised at his three fumbles and interception.
Then again Â No reward for keeping games close
He did throw an 87-yard bomb to Calvin Johnson to make this thing a game. The Lions do that. They tease you just enough to keep from turning off the TV.
They have been close in all their defeats – including 28-20 Sunday. But they are still defeats. Five in six games. And that’s all that counts.
“We’re not happy with (people saying), ÂOh, they’re better than last year Â nobody expected them to play this well,’ ” receiver Nate Burleson said. “We’ve heard that too many times already this season. We’re walking into stadiums whether it’s home or away to win.”
I like that! I’d like it better if Burleson hadn’t fumbled in the fourth quarter, which led to a Giants touchdown.
But that’s the Lions. They’re too earnest to mock, and too dismal to admire. Only four teams in the NFL have as bad a record or worse as Detroit. In a win-or-go-home league, that doesn’t get you hosannas.
The prayers for Zack Follett are that he will rise up and be back to normal. The prayers for the Lions are that they will rise up and invent a new normal. Next is a bye week. I think players and fans need one, don’t you?
Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.