With nimble Matthew Stafford, Lions open fast on beautiful Detroit sports day

by | Sep 9, 2014 | Detroit Free Press, Sports | 0 comments

Matthew Stafford took off running. In the past, this made you worry. In the past, Stafford hoofing it was a last resort — and how much can you expect from a last resort?

But this is not the past. And apparently, the Lions quarterback spent the summer on “Dancing with the Stars.” His footwork had never been so sure and determined, and on this third-down play near the end of the third quarter, he started back behind the Giants’ 10-yard line, saw everyone covered, took off, sprinted all the way to the 2, cut inside, took a smash from linebacker Jon Beason in the end zone, but never went down — just spun to his sideline and tossed the ball backward over his shoulder, as if to say, “Yeah, I can move, that’s right, what about it?’’

Off to the races. The Lions took the new car out of the garage Monday night at Ford Field, and revved the engines inside the eardrums of the New York Giants.

They ran them over.

They backed up.

They ran them over again.

They stalled. They jump-started.

They ran them over again.

“It’s promising,” Stafford said after the 35-14 victory, in which he threw for 346 yards and two touchdowns and threatened “Tony Manero” as a new nickname. “We gotta keep getting better,” he added.

Right. It was not a perfect game. But it was a perfect start — and the end of a perfectly beautiful Detroit sports day, in which one downtown stadium saw the Tigers take down the Royals, moving to within a game of first place, while the stadium next door saw the Lions win their first Monday night opener in 43 years, and share a first place of their own.

“We were able to enjoy most of what happened out there,” said an obviously pleased new head coach Jim Caldwell, after his first official game behind the Lions’ wheel. “In this league that’s not always the case, even when you win. … It was fun, at home, in front of the crowd.”

Off to the races.

Full speed ahead

Of course, if you bottled those first 10 minutes at Ford Field, you could have sold out the next 100 seasons. The Lions, out of the gate, were like a “Transformers” movie. All that was missing was the sound effects.

A 67-yard bomb from Stafford to Calvin Johnson ended the opening drive in a touchdown. Again, Stafford juked away from a pass rusher (“It’s about my only move,” he joked) and found Johnson so open, he could have mowed one of those outer space things in the turf.

The Giants, on the ensuing series, lost one yard in three plays against the Detroit defense. Then Stafford slammed the gas pedal again, finishing a long drive with a 16-yard touchdown strike to Johnson — again delivered on the run.

Two drives. Two touchdowns. Johnson with nearly 100 yards. Stafford with nearly 150.

Lions up, 14-0.

Don’t quote me, but I believe some fans checked their iPhones for airline tickets to Arizona.

Ah, but rocket fuel burns fast. Soon enough, the Lions were sputtering, back to searching for a running game, struggling with pass defense, and battling, at times, their toughest enemy, themselves.

Eight penalties in the first half kept the game a too-close 14-7. A roughing the kicker flag gave the Giants new life. A pass interference call gave them the ball on the Lions’ 1. A costly face mask. A missed field goal.

“There were a lot of plays we left on the field,” Detroit linebacker DeAndre Levy said.

“I think we all knew we were stopping ourselves,” Stafford added.

Fortunately, they stopped stopping themselves in the second half. And they were playing New York, a flawed team far removed from its Super Bowl glory days. The Giants are in the middle of a major offensive facelift, and the Lions caught them on the operating table. Eli Manning was little more than another quarterback Monday night, throwing for a paltry 163 yards. The Detroit defense intercepted him twice, sacked him twice, and ended the curse of the Manning brothers, who, between them, had never lost to the Lions.

Come on. You can’t be winless against an entire family!

Megatron’s moments

Still, the quarterback story was not their guy, but Detroit’s guy, Stafford, with his old accuracy and his new dexterity. There is word that Stafford, now 26, worked hard on his conditioning this off-season, and under new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who made his name with the Saints, he looked more elusive than ever. (Can anyone say Drew Brees?) Stafford sidestepped tackles, and smartly dodged heavy rushes, taking just one sack for five yards and never forcing a truly bad pass all night.

“I work out with Stafford sometimes in the off-season,” Calvin Johnson said after the game. “We do a lot of footwork drills. You see it paying off. … He’s confident in his feet. … He’s running better than he has in the past (and) he’s running smart.

“He ain’t gonna do nothing crazy.”

If Stafford can truly become a mobile threat (he doesn’t need to turn into Michael Vick, just develop that slide/step/move-up thing that frustrates pass rushes and extends plays), well, look out. The Lions already are set to rack up pinball numbers with all their offensive weapons.

Meanwhile, Stafford just keeps talking about Johnson.

“Every time it’s Monday night, the guy makes a big play,” he said.

Indeed, Johnson deserved the boldest headlines (164 yards on 7 catches, with two TDs). It’s a treat to watch him in an opener, as he paces himself through training camp so carefully, that he really doesn’t open the throttle until it officially counts. It’s all part of preserving his health, saving that once-in-a-decade body for when it truly matters.

“This is the best I’ve felt in the first game,” he said, smiling afterward. “Usually everyone is dragging, tired. But that just speaks to the conditioning that we had.”

It also confirms that the Lions have so many other weapons now, they can sit Johnson on certain plays during the game. Golden Tate, the new addition at receiver, had nearly 100 yards himself Monday night. He and four other receivers shared 15 catches outside of Johnson’s impressive total. And that’s with rookie tight end Eric Ebron, the No. 1 pick, not catching a thing.

Hey. It’s the first week.

Which is what you always have to remind yourself — especially after a victory. The defense clearly has secondary issues. The running game was not what it will need to be. Special teams didn’t do much (besides one half-blocked punt).

But if you’re looking for some data to inspire hope, look at the long, 12-play, 80-yard drive that ate the clock in the fourth quarter. “That’s a positive sign for us,” Stafford said, “to really churn up the clock.”

And consider how many plays the Lions converted Monday night on third down or long yardage situations. I charted the notable ones: second-and-10 (gained 24 yards), third-and-9 (67 yards, TD), second-and-18 (24 yards), third-and-13 (16 yards, TD), third-and-4 (24 yards), third-and-11 (44 yards), and second-and-13 (26 yards).

What does it mean? That the offense flipped the odds. That it took what was once dire straits and made them a plus. Once upon a time, if the Lions had a third-and-long, you had to hold the punter back.

This is new. This is exciting. As new and exciting as a Twinkle Toes Stafford.

You can’t get crazy. That’s crazy. And it’s true, most experts expected the Lions to beat the transitioning Giants. This weekend at Carolina (if Cam Newton plays as expected) will be a different test.

But you take them as them come, seasons, games, quarters and plays. Detroit, under the fresh whistle of Caldwell, did what it had to do when it had to do it, hit the gas and sped off to the races, leaving behind the sweet smell of burnt rubber on a memorable Monday in the Motor City.


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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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