Mitch Albom: Detroit Lions start with a thud, end with a bang, still lose season opener

Detroit Free Press

And they’re off!

And they’re… off.

The work in progress that is the new Detroit Lions was, well, a work in progress in Sunday’s opener, falling into a four-touchdown hole, whiffing frequently on offense and defense, bobbling passes, overthrowing receivers, taking sacks, blowing defensive assignments and surrendering some huge plays, including a 79-yard touchdown pass and a 38-yard touchdown run.

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But — and there is a but — they also had a few nice moments of their own, including a two-pronged rushing attack that we haven’t seen in so long, we found ourselves saying, “Oh, so that’s what a breakaway looks like!” There was a good day by tight end T.J. Hockenson, a couple of forced fumbles by the defense, and, best of all, a fourth quarter rally that saw Detroit score two touchdowns, a pair of two-point conversions, recover an onside kick AND a fumble, and steer a last gasp drive that stalled just 24 yards from the end zone.

The result, yes, was what everyone this side of Dan Campbell’s immediate family expected, a loss to the San Francisco 49ers, a team with championship aspirations.

“It just got out of hand early” Campbell said afterwards.

True. 38-10 is kinda ”out of hand.”

Still, for whatever reason, I can’t get too upset over this ultimate 41-33 loss. Maybe it’s the fact that the Lions never stopped going for it, even when they were down four touchdowns, which is when normal people start thinking about what flavor chicken wings they’re going to order.

Maybe it’s the fact that there was finally a 60,000-person crowd at Ford Field.

Maybe it’s the fact that this latest Lions coach looks like he could run out there and play a few snaps at tight end, while the last Lions coach, when standing still, looked like a pitched tent.

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Or maybe it’s just decade after decade of not anticipating much from our local football team. Eventually, you become like a grandparent watching a Little League game. You’re just happy to see them try.

Everything old is new again

And try they did Sunday. You can focus on the first three quarters, where the game was lost, or the last quarter, where it was almost stolen back.

“They didn’t throw their palms up and they didn’t start sulking,” Campbell said.

Of course, he was talking about his players, not the fans. The fans did all that. Actually, they were weird on Sunday. First of all, somebody let in an armada of 49ers folks. There was almost as many red shirts and blue ones in the stands. And with a few minutes left, when you could have had your own row of seats, there were more 49ers rooters left than Lions’.

“The fans were loud,” said running back D’Andre Swift. “I just wish they’d stayed a little longer.”

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Most were in their cars with five minutes left in the game — a shame, because that’s when the Lions looked their best. First, Goff led an 86-yard touchdown drive with a slew of short passes and some timely San Francisco penalties.

Then, after the Lions recovered the onside kick (and when does THAT happen?) Goff hit five straight passes to drive them 59 yards in less than a minute. The two-point conversions brought it to 41-33, and when the Lions recovered a 49ers fumble, they actually had a chance to tie the game.

But Goff missed on his final three passes, and the game died like a dandelion puffball, hitting the ground without delivering its wish.

Still, they kept fighting. They didn’t quit.

[ Up-and-down game ends with possible Achilles injury for Lions CB Jeff Okudah ]

“It’s not a moral victory and it’s not something we’re necessarily proud of,” Goff said. “But … it’s encouraging to know who we are.”

Lions fans will say, “Oh we know who you are.”

But do we?

Something to look forward to

Let’s talk about the quarterback. Goff, 26, has been in town a few months now without much fanfare. And he kind of played that way Sunday. His numbers were fine (38-for-57, 338 yards, three touchdowns, one interception.) With all the checkdowns he’s liable to be calling, I imagine his completion numbers will look fine much of the season. Yes, he missed on some passes that seemed quite makeable. And he’s not going sprint away from anyone. And he threw a bad pick-six interception late in the first half.

But in those final few drives, there was a flash of something. He was decisive and accurate.

“Confident,” Swift said of Goff’s demeanor in the huddle. “A born leader.”

The team certainly seemed to be inspired. Hockenson was a reliable target (and escape valve). And Goff completed 16 passes to his running backs, Swift and Jamal Williams. The offensive line created some big old holes, large enough that the rushers could actually run — and who knew this was even a thing — straight ahead!

And then there’s the coach. It’s hard not to like Campbell. He looks like actor Aaron Eckhart with a bushy goatee. He goes for it on fourth down (twice in the first quarter Sunday). He speaks plainly. He doesn’t couch things. He was honest about his debut. You could tell in the words he chose.

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“Throwing the ball 57 times, that’s not our game, man.”

“There will be so much stuff to clean up on that tape.”

“Man, our margin for error is so small.”

He’s right about that. These Lions aren’t good enough, talented enough or deep enough to go down 28 points to anybody. But with 45% of the team new faces, plus a whole new coaching staff and front office, I refuse to use the words “same” and “old” and “Lions” in consecutive order in a single sentence, at least not before Thanksgiving, or two losses to Green Bay.

Until then, as season openers go, it was different yet familiar, embarrassing yet inspiring, a blowout and a close game, all rolled into one. It was, in short, Lions football.

“Everything that we said that we needed to do to win this game we really didn’t do,” Campbell admitted.

Hey. There’s something new to celebrate. Honesty. Here in the land of perpetual football disappointment, you take what you can get.

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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