WET & WILD: STEWART’S GRAND RUNNING, FORTUNATE FUMBLE GIVE LIONS KEY VICTORYIN PLAYOFF CHASE

EASTRUTHERFORD, N.J. — On the bus ride to the stadium, the other Lions were exhorting him, saying,
“This your kinda day, baby, look out there, baby, your kind of day!” James Stewart looked out the window, saw the dark winter clouds, the gushing rain, and he must have thought: Great. So now I’m a mudder?

Well. If the cleat fits . . .

So Stewart galloped. Stewart sloshed. Stewart splashed and crashed and got soaked and got filthy. He took the ball, and he took it again, until he was so caked with mud and grass he could have starred in “Swamp Thing.” But on a day the Lions’ offense made Florida voters look organized, Stewart kept his team afloat. And if you saw the weather here Sunday, you know I mean by “afloat.”

“Do you know how many times you carried the ball today?” I asked Stewart in the locker room, after the Lions squished out a 10-7 victory.

“I lost count,” Stewart said.

“Take a guess.”

“Thirty?”

“Try 37.”

“Thirty-seven?” he said. “That’s a lot . . .”

With that, I expected him to keel over and fall asleep for a week. Ride him? Stewart was the mechanical horse outside the supermarket — during a birthday party. He had nearly five times as many rushes as the Lions had pass completions. I didn’t see Detroit’s playbook for Sunday, but I’m pretty sure it had Stewart’s picture on the cover.

“This was his most valuable game,” quarterback Charlie Batch said. “We knew going in we had to depend on him.”

And not only did Stewart deliver in his own production with a career-high 164 yards, he shared what little wealth there was. Here is the giving nature of the Lions’ premier rusher: Rather than hog the glory himself, he let a teammate score the Lions’ only touchdown of the day.

OK, OK, so it wasn’t that generous. Gimme a break. It’s Christmastime; I’m trying to be charitable.

Follow the bouncing ball

The fact is, Stewart fumbled. He fumbled at the worst time. It was his only real mistake — but it turned into the Lions’ best play.

Earlier in the game, the Lions had marched 89 yards to the Jets’ 1 — only to see Stewart, on fourth down, leap into the line and get torpedoed by Jets linebackers Marvin Jones and Dwayne Gordon. The Lions never really threatened again, until . . .

…the fourth quarter, still no touchdowns, less than six minutes to go. The Lions were losing by four points, but lookee here. They’re on the Jets’ 1 again.

And what do they call?

James and the Giant Leap.

“The Jets knew I was gonna jump; that’s what I do,” Stewart admitted.

And yep, Marvin Jones torpedoed him again. But this time, the ball popped out. It bounced sideways in the end zone, up for grabs. Anybody? Anybody?

Here came a body, the most unlikely of all. Lions right guard Jeff Hartings, who had never scored a touchdown in college, never scored a touchdown in high school — in fact, had never scored a touchdown in any kind of organized football — lumbered after the bouncing ball and smothered it like a kid jumping into his pillow.

Touchdown. Touchdown?

“I was looking through the bodies and I saw Jeff fall on it,” Stewart said,
“and I just lay back, looked at the sky and said: ‘Finally. A bounce goes our way.’ “

That was mild, of course, to Hartings’ reaction. He jumped up, did the lineman’s version of a wiggle, then ran to the sidelines like an Olympic sprinter on a victory lap.

“The last time I scored a touchdown was in my backyard,” Hartings gushed after the game.

“Was that your touchdown dance?” someone asked.

“Dance? Aw, offensive linemen don’t know about dances,” he said. “I couldn’t even decide if I should spike it.”

I’ll tell you what he should have done. He should have found James Stewart and put the ball back in his hands. Because in every way but the box score, that touchdown — and in many ways, Sunday’s victory — was Stewart’s.

Did you hear a bell ring?

Now. That is not to say that Sunday was something to be proud of. As wins go, this is one you want to hide in the closet. It came down to a missed field goal by the Jets in the final seconds. Had that gone through — or had a New York player pounced on that fumble instead of Hartings — the Lions might not have bothered to fly home last night. They’d be all but eliminated from the playoffs. As it is, they are still alive, with a 9-6 record, but that is hardly a guarantee.

To be honest, with the offense the way it is, the playoffs promise little except embarrassment. The Detroit defense is strong and gutty. But the fact is, save for Stewart’s efforts, the Lions can’t move the ball. Their offense has become the equivalent of a teenager’s first car: You stick the keys in and pray that it starts.

Batch was all over the place Sunday, missing easy throws, tossing a terrible interception. You can never question his heart, but these days you can shrug at his accuracy. Batch completed only eight passes Sunday — and this was when his ribs were relatively healthy And he was sacked five times (I like Ray Roberts, but when he comes in, Charlie’s insurance rates go up).

On the whole Sunday, I would say the Lions shot themselves in the foot, but they weren’t that accurate. This would have been a terrible loss. Instead, it was an ugly victory.

But before we get too sullen, remember, at least it was a victory. You could be a Jets fan this morning. I mean, how would you like to lose to an offense like this?

Besides, Stewart gave such a yeoman performance, it deserves celebration — at least for a day. With 1,127 yards and one game to play, he became the Lions’ first 1,000-yard rusher since Barry you-know-who, and he’s more than doubled the output of the Lions’ best rusher last year (Greg Hill, with 542 yards.)

Stewart was the mudder, the workhorse, the slosh and splash and grind and slammer. And the one mistake that turned into a touchdown?

Well. What do you expect? It’s almost Christmas. His name is James Stewart. It’s supposed to be a wonderful life, right?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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