OAKLAND, Calif. – Calvin Johnson took his place on the line, broke free on the snap and was open over the middle. Jon Kitna found him with a pass, Johnson cradled it in, took a few long strides with those two long legs and dove into paydirt. It was his first touchdown in his first game on the first week of the season, and he got up and ran excitedly through the end zone. In his exuberance, the youngest player on the Lions forgot about the ball. But Roy Williams, his fellow receiver, handed it to him as a souvenir.
“You gotta keep that first ball, man,” Williams said after the Lions’ 36-21 season-opening victory over the Raiders. “That’s something he can show his kids when he’s 80 years old.”
Worth remembering. Here was a rare happy start in Lion Nation – hey if the Raiders can have one, why not Detroit? – because for once, the hype did not exceed the delivery. We had been hearing about the well-oiled offense. The offense was well-oiled. We had been hearing about the newly intense defense. The defense was newly intense.
We had been hearing about Johnson, yet another first-round receiver pick, and why, because of his mad skills, he was worth the risk.
He looked worth the risk.
Johnson, all 6-feet-5 of him, was the freshest of the fresh looks Sunday, a giant, loping presence who actually makes Williams look average-sized. Johnson caught four passes for 70 yards and that touchdown, but better than that was the fact that he was one of eight receivers Kitna found, and better than that was that one of those receivers, Shaun McDonald, another new pickup, caught the game-winning touchdown that actually brought the Lions back from behind in the fourth quarter, and better than that was – well, let’s stop and catch our breath.
“This,” said Kitna, who threw for three touchdowns, “is the best I’ve felt since putting on a Lions uniform.”
Which is understandable. The team that won one game on the road in all of 2006 won the opener on the road in 2007.
Who are these new guys?
And while Johnson won for “Best Rookie Performance,” he was neck-and-neck with a large cast for “Best Debut.” The Lions are perennially attacked for whom they pick up and whom they let go – Matt Millen has been living with this since he got here – so let’s be fair and let’s be honest. A big part of Sunday’s victory was because of guys brought in by the front office.
McDonald, the Lions’ leading receiver Sunday, was signed in the off-season. Tatum Bell, the new running back, scored the final touchdown and finished with 87 yards, which for a Lions running back is like 400 yards.
Dewayne White, the defensive lineman who signed a five-year, free-agent deal in the off-season, was a huge presence, stealing a pass for an interception, getting a sack, recovering a fumble and forcing two fumbles, including one by former Lions quarterback Josh McCown. (If a new guy forces a fumble by a guy you got rid of, does that count for double points?)
And then there was Shaun Rogers, making his own debut. The oft-troubled, rarely quoted, two-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman once again went through training camp a virtual ghost. Didn’t play a single snap in the exhibition season.
Yet there he was on Sunday, and you could no more ignore him than you could ignore a meteor in your swimming pool. He had more spring in his step than a refrigerator-sized human should display. He blocked a field-goal attempt, helped force a late fumble, and, generally, when he was in there, served as a human wrecking machine.
“How can you be that effective without any game action in preseason?” Rogers was asked.
“Playing ball is playing ball,” he said. “It’s really not that … hard.”
“Are you the best argument for not needing a preseason?”
“I don’t make that argument for the league,” he said, grinning, “but I don’t think I need one.”
However this guy pulls it off, it is the reason the Lions look the other way with him when they have to. Right or wrong, they at least have that luxury.
The Raiders didn’t. He was in their faces all day.
Former Lions struggle
And OK, speaking of the Raiders, some perspective. They were the worst team in football last season. And they were starting two ex-Lions, McCown and receiver Mike Williams. To lose to these guys, even on the road, would have been an ugly start that could have snowballed.
But the Lions didn’t lose. And the Raiders, despite last year’s record, have a very good defense. And McCown looked indecisive and was ultimately punished by Detroit’s defense, while Williams did pretty much nothing, which was pretty much his legacy in the Motor City.
The Lions may have allowed Oakland to get up off the mat after a 17-0 lead, and yes, Detroit surrendered a couple of bad interceptions and yes, when Rogers isn’t in there, this defense is much different. (It is no accident that two of the Raiders’ touchdowns came when he was on the sidelines, catching his breath.)
But you build on what you can build on.
“Did you ever wonder how the team would react when you fell behind?” Rod Marinelli was asked.
“As soon as you wonder, you lose belief,” he said.
Not only a coach, but a philosopher, too.
Well, Marinelli did promise a different look, a different attitude and different results. He gets thumbs-up for all three on this Sunday. And something tells me that won’t be the last souvenir for Calvin Johnson’s trophy case.
“What are you going to do with the ball?” he was asked.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do with it,” he said, “but I’m gonna keep it.”
Worth remembering. Let’s see where they go from here.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). www.freep.com/mitch.