Mitch Albom: On strangest Sunday, a too familiar finish for Detroit Lions

Detroit Free Press

The ball, the catch, the game, and the win were all floating into the hands of rookie D’Andre Swift. What an ending this would be! And then, just as quickly, they all fell out. A dropped pass in the end zone. A dropped game on opening Sunday. A victory turned to sudden defeat. And nobody to make any noise about it, except some whooping Chicago Bears players across the field, as if this were a neighborhood street game and the kid brothers and sisters were cheering from their porches.

On the strangest opening Sunday in NFL history, the Detroit Lions played a game in front of nobody. There was no traffic. No lines. No tailgates. No cheerleaders. When the national anthem singer hit “the land of the free,” her high note filled the cavernous Ford Field without a peep of reaction.

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Nearly every bowl level and upper deck seat was empty, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. There were cutout human beings in one end zone section but not the other. The handful of media allowed inside were scattered throughout the building. Some reporters were socially distanced in luxury suites (now you know it’s a global crisis.) During the action, I could actually hear Lomas Brown, the Lions radio analyst, giving his thoughts.

He was two sections away from me.

Coaches were masked but players were not. Artificial noise was pumped in, but not always. Adrian Peterson was playing for the Lions and had over 90 yards rushing. Would the craziness ever stop?

Yes. It stopped on that next-to-the-last play of the game, when Swift dropped a perfect game-winning toss from Matthew Stafford in the end zone, and things in Lion Land went right back to normal. Our hometown guys reminded fans that when it comes to gut-wrenching ways to lose, pandemic or no pandemic, they will not be outdone.

The Lions lost to the Bears 27-23, after having led 23-6 to start the fourth quarter. They gave up 21 points. They dropped a game-winning catch.

“Obviously a very disappointing game for everyone. We’ve got to coach better. We’ve got to finish the game better. … Certainly we can’t do things that hurt ourselves, which we did in the fourth quarter. Starts with coaching. Gotta do a better job with coaching. That’s me.”

Stop if you’ve heard this before.

Same Old Lions

“Yep. It was disappointing,” Stafford said curtly, when asked about the continued woes of fourth quarter collapses. What else could he say? Last year’s opener was similar, giving up 18 fourth quarter points to Arizona in a game that ended in a tie. And Detroit went on to lose six more games in 2019 in which it blew a second-half lead.

They can grimace and look annoyed all they want. But until the Lions change this pattern, they’re going to keep getting the same old questions.

“There’s a lot of plays out there where a lot of guys had chances,” said Patricia, on a day when the Lions led in penalties, turnovers and injuries, a dreadful combination. Both teams showed a lot of rust early — as neither had faced an opponent since December. But while the Bears found their footing late in the game, the Lions lost theirs. The defense, worst in the NFL in so many categories last season, surrendered drives of 59, 55 and 37 yards in the fourth quarter, including the winning touchdown, the best pass of the day by Mitchell Trubisky paired with a fingertip catch by Anthony Miller. That’s Mitchell Trubisky, who was on the chopping block last year, and who seems to have trouble with most football teams — except ours.

The Bears, in fact, have now beaten Matt Patricia’s Lions five times in a row. That’s not good against a divisional foe.

“We will get better,” insisted safety Duron Harmon.

Of course, he’s new here. Don’t let that man read any old newspapers.

Wait. Here’s some good stuff: Adrian Peterson is playing for the Lions. I said that before, but given the heartbreak of the ensuing paragraphs, maybe you forgot it. Peterson, the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer and former Minnesota Vikings star, joined Detroit a week ago. And with a couple of practices, had the best rushing Sunday of any Lion since November — 14 carries, 93 yards — which suggests that talent does have something to do with things.

“We can’t let this define us,” Peterson said. “… We clean up (our mistakes), we’re up by 30 points.”

Then again, they were up by 17 with 14 minutes left. That should have been enough. Someone asked Peterson, who said the Lions could be “a special team,” why he was so confident in Patricia, his new coach, whose record in Detroit is now 9-23-1.

“When I look in his eyes,” he said. “I see a winner.”

OK. I’m gonna leave that one alone.

Same Old Result

Sure, you can point to bad luck, such as Stafford’s lone interception, which caromed off a defender and landed in the arms of another. Or injuries to key guys, such as Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman, whose departures left the secondary depleted. Or a missed field goal. Or several dropped or misplayed passes by rookie Quintez Cephus.

But the bottom line is, there’s no way the Lions should have lost this game. And these blown games — in which the response is always, “It’s just one out of 16” — tend to sink seasons.

Then again, if there was ever a year to expect the unexpected, it’s 2020. And on Sunday, the context overwhelmed the contest.

Think about it. The coronavirus pandemic has brought many a business to its knees. But not pro football. The NFL, being the NFL, is the only major American sport not to alter a single regular season game. And on its first full Sunday, it plowed ahead with every gimmick possible to simulate the experience America loves.

If you watched this game on TV at home, you probably heard a steady roar of fan noise. Sounded like the place was going nuts, right? Trust me, it was not. I played the broadcast on my computer, and popped headsets in and out of my ears. The contrast was insane. At one point, when Coleman was injured on the field, all of Ford Field — in person — was silent. But on the TV broadcast, it sounded like 60,000 people were getting restless.

Doesn’t that strike you as a bit … creepy? Do you suppose someone in a lab somewhere is saying, “You know, come to think of it, we really don’t need human fans….”

A silent day. But still depressing, football-wise. Patricia is reportedly on the clock with ownership to make the playoffs. This was hardly a good start. Then again, on the bright side, many of us never thought we’d see a football game played this year. 

Leave it to the Lions. Everything else about this historic Sunday was something we’d never seen before.

Except the ending.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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