Detroit — When it was over, Dan Campbell didn’t know whether to be thoroughly disgusted or mildly encouraged. Jared Goff had the same look. Welcome to the upside-down world of the Lions, fellas, where games often are packed with missed tackles and mixed messages.
For months, the Lions touted a fresh blast of energy, a sense that things were changing, and sure enough there was a glimpse at the start and a flash at the end of Sunday’s opener. In between came the raw, real rush of reality.
Ultimately, Campbell’s first game as coach looked like so many other downers as the Lions were flattened by the 49ers, 41-33. If you lumped it in with all the other awful starts, no one would argue. For much of the game, the Lions couldn’t pass, couldn’t stop the pass, couldn’t stop the run, couldn’t do much against the powerful 49ers. Goff’s debut was up and down, then down and up, and as the Lions mounted a futile comeback, you could squint and see hazy images of a battling Matthew Stafford.
With two minutes left, it was 41-17, an utter pounding. That the Lions scored twice and had the ball at San Francisco’s 24 for one final shot with 17 seconds left could be considered encouraging, except we’ve seen it before.
You knew it would take time with a completely revamped roster, so you can’t be surprised. You certainly can be disappointed. My suggestion: Resist the urge to say nothing has changed, even if it looks like nothing has changed.
“We dug ourselves in a really big ditch early against a very good team,” Campbell said. “Everything that we said we needed to do to win this game we really didn’t do. We were better in the second half. We gave ourselves a chance, but it wasn’t good enough.”
This was always going to be a difficult, even ugly, transition. A new coach and GM took over a team that was 14-33-1 the past three seasons and made multiple moves for the future, not for now. Take comfort in knowing Stafford — traded for Goff and two first-round picks — could not have fared much better Sunday.
The Lions remain outmanned, and also undermanned in this one, facing a ferocious San Francisco pass rush without left tackle Taylor Decker, out about a month after hand surgery. For the second straight season, that put the Lions’ first-round pick in an unsettling situation. Penei Sewell, drafted seventh overall, practiced two days at left tackle, jumped into the lineup and acquitted himself very well.
The Lions ran the ball effectively at times (hey, that’s changed!), and have two dangerous backs in Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift. Tight end T.J. Hockenson was clutch, with eight catches and a touchdown. There’s definitely promise in the running game. But the Lions fell behind so quickly — 31-10 at the half — they had to ditch it and start winging it. Goff was sacked three times and threw one horrible interception, returned 39 yards by Dre Greenlaw for a touchdown.
Later, the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo lofted a pass for Deebo Samuel, and cornerback Jeff Okudah fell as he twisted around. The 79-yard touchdown made it 38-10, the lowlight of a brutal day for Okudah.
The Lions are in this spot, ticketed for another rough season, because of questionable drafting by the Bob Quinn-Matt Patricia regime, and there’s no changing that overnight. Okudah, selected No. 3 last year, started poorly again, and it got worse. He endured a sideline blistering from defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant, who repeatedly yelled at him, “Do your (blanking) job!” To cap off the misery, Okudah left in the fourth quarter with a potentially serious Achilles injury.
The Lions’ defense was historically bad last season, surrendering at least 30 points the final six games. They kept that streak alive, and while they might play more aggressively now, they’re still way short on playmakers. It should be noted the 49ers are a potential Super Bowl team. It also should be noted they averaged eight yards — EIGHT! — per offensive play and didn’t punt until late in the third quarter.
“We fought hard, and this is a team that’s not going to give up,” linebacker Trey Flowers said. “We gotta do the things in between better, and just settle down. The encouraging part is, we know we’re always gonna have a chance.”
Ah, the Lions’ favorite mantra. But having a chance is moot if you’re wasting chances, and that’s what they did. They recovered a fumble on the 49ers’ first play, picked up a first down, and then new kicker Austin Seibert missed a 51-yard field goal. The Ford Field crowd was loud, but eventually drowned out by a huge contingent of 49ers fans.
That’s another thing that has to change. The Lions need to crank up the crowd by cranking up the aggressiveness, and Campbell tried. He went for it on fourth down five times and converted two. Goff was true to his nature, and true to the Lions’ thin receiving corps, opting for short passes and busted-up screens.
It finally changed when the 49ers backed off and the Lions had no choice. And for a moment, a miracle seemed to be forming from the mirage. Goff directed two touchdown drives, with an onside kick recovery in between. He found Quintez Cephus on a 2-yard touchdown pass with 1:07 left and converted the two-pointer on another toss to Cephus. Just like that, the Lions were down one score.
The 49ers were seconds from sealing it when Samuel caught a pass and was about to gain the clinching first down, but Flowers knocked the ball loose. After the fumble recovery, Goff directed the Lions to the San Francisco 24 but threw three incompletions. After the slow start, Goff finished 38-for-57 for 338 yards, and opted to extract more positives than negatives from the outing.
“I think you found out who we are, and it’s not a moral victory and not something that we’re necessarily proud of, but it is something that’s good to know,” Goff said. “We’ve got some scrappy guys and some guys that will fight, that will fight for each other, that will fight for me and will fight for the ball. It’s good to know who we are and hopefully the team knows who I am and we can draw from that a little bit. But at the same time, we shouldn’t put ourselves in that position.”
Leaks kept sprouting everywhere. Prospective No. 1 receiver Tyrell Williams was injured and departed. With Sewell in a new position — his natural, comfortable position actually — the right tackle was manned by Matt Nelson, who gave up a sack and committed a holding penalty on consecutive plays. Campbell and GM Brad Holmes banked heavily on the strength of the line, and it was quickly muddled.
But Sewell drew raves from teammates and the 49ers, and there were some gaping holes for Jamaal Williams and Swift. And then there was that comeback, which looked like nothing until it nearly became something. The Lions did scrap to the end, and they’ll hang on to that feeling as tightly as they can, and that’s fine. As long as they recognize reality dawned, and not much has changed yet.