Henning: Lions should drink in Win No. 1, but ultimately adding talent is goal

Detroit News

In that happy storm of hugs and whoops and gray NFL jerseys that a few minutes after 4 p.m. Sunday turned Ford Field into a Mardi Gras moment, an old advertising line came to mind:

“This Bud’s for you.”

You remember it — a tribute to sweat and to spirit and to the occasional merry moment every hard-working, uphill-climbing, no-frills soul is entitled, at select times, to extract from an often-beleaguered life and an endlessly taxing world.

Hoist a cold one, Lions. This Bud absolutely is for you.

Winning that first game of 2021, 29-27 over the Minnesota Vikings, took long enough. Christmas lights, for crying out loud, are hanging from trees and houses 12 weeks into the NFL autumn and the Lions managed, on the last play Sunday, a 12-yard dart from Jared Goff to Amon-Ra St. Brown, to steal the kind of game that had been thieved from them too many times in 2021 and to run their record to a cover-your-eyes 1-10-1.

More: Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: Offense shows signs of life; pass rush produces

Good for an NFL team, everyone, this reprieve from a sadistic season that had made it look as if a lone tie might be the only escape from solitary confinement in the NFL’s loss column. Good for Dan Campbell, the head coach who has donated his blood and fiber in taking on a job that was never going to be easy — and a job that proved, during the season’s first three months, to be even tougher than almost anyone imagined.

“To be able to win, man — of course I’m happy, we’re all happy,” Campbell said, waving his arms animatedly afterward, a man trying to balance relief, glee, and reality as he spoke to media in a T-shirt and ballcap.

Campbell could have been a different, far darker, portrait in that postgame press session Sunday.

The coach’s decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 from Detroit’s 28, with the Lions on top, 23-21, and 4:08 to play, looked instantly like crash-and-burn strategy. It went down, for a few minutes anyway, as doubly disastrous tomfoolery after Goff fumbled away the ball at Detroit’s 21, setting up Minnesota’s go-ahead score.

But dismiss those would-be demons Sunday and return to those later, Ford Field back-slaps a team ultimately earned.

A double high-five went to Goff, the Lions quarterback who in his first months in Detroit has been crawling through the equivalent of constant infantry fire — commandeering an offense that, because of talent deficits, has made him a target for every frustration and critique fans rightfully have dumped on Detroit’s most exasperating sports franchise.

Goff looked downright masterly in Sunday’s first half: 13-for-17, 185 yards, two touchdowns — and no picks. The Vikings’ defense tidied up in the final two quarters as Minnesota, of course, wiped out a 20-6 Lions lead to all but win the game on a Kirk Cousins pass to Justin Jefferson with 1:50 to play.

It was 27-23, Vikings. A team from Detroit was about to add to its 2021 ignominy by tumbling to 0-11-1.

There simply was too little time. The Lions had spent all their timeouts. And no one has confused Goff with Bobby Layne, or Goff’s predecessor, Matthew Stafford, when it comes to feats of derring-do as a fourth-quarter clock bleeds to death.

But what poised, closing-moments stewardship from Goff and by a Lions offense that squeezed out just enough sideline clock-stoppages, and snap-and-spikes to set up Goff’s final bullet to St. Brown.

So, all is healed at Ford Field and at Allen Park. The strife is o’er, as they say.

Uh, no, and any of the intrepid folks who turned out for Sunday’s drama knows it, as does the rest of Detroit and the NFL world.

The Lions are in a delicate dance that might win a 2022 first-overall draft pick, unless this winning business becomes a bit more familiar during the next month and the Lions are overtaken, for worst NFL record, by the Jaguars or Texans or other contestants.

For whatever pain their 2021 season inflicts, the Lions will accept as balm a first turn in April’s NFL talent-hunt.

Those who watched Michigan devour Iowa during Saturday night’s Big Ten Championship Game are naturally thrilled that the Wolverines’ master of mayhem, Aidan Hutchinson, might be sitting there, waiting to transform a Lions defense that could use an edge-rushing star.

And he might well be their man at one-overall, especially when Detroit’s dream of grabbing a strong-armed quarterback isn’t in the cards — not when a lean 2022 draft crop could mean there won’t be a single QB taken in the first 10 picks.

But consider a necessary question that gets to the heart of a franchise’s six-decade issues:

What difference will Hutchinson make, if the Lions do qualify for that first pick, when a team has so many obvious needs at so many positions on both sides of a football?

Lions history offers a concise summary of how those earliest draft-day picks have failed to do much, in the NFL’s grand scheme:

Billy Sims, first overall pick in 1980. Barry Sanders, third overall in 1989. Calvin Johnson, second overall pick in 2007. Matthew Stafford, first overall, 2009. Ndamakong Suh, second overall, 2010.

The above crew helped the Lions to a single NFL playoff triumph lo these past 64 years (a deep bow to Sanders for engineering that lone moment).

And, so, neither Sunday’s gallantry, nor April’s impending Lions flesh-feast (two first-round picks), is — in historic context, anyway — likely to deliver any messianic help heading into Campbell’s second season at Allen Park.

Luck and the Lions aren’t words that often merge. Here they are, with a probable first stab in April, wanting a superstar QB ideally. But without much of a QB stable in 2022, the Lions are neither looking at a franchise arm, nor are they flirting with a scenario they probably more require: the ability to trade down and parlay as many picks as possible to flood a roster with two-way talent they are desperate to add, in deep abundance.

They’ll have to deal with all of this once this 2021 odyssey wraps up in a few weeks.

For now, they’re entitled to raise a mug, sip some suds, enjoy a Sunday moment earned and deserved, and spend at least a few days savoring the dignity winning a NFL game uniquely delivers.

Bartender — another round, please, for Campbell’s boys. They had a big day Sunday.

This Bud, most assuredly, is for them.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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