Detroit Lions amazing and awful — sometimes on the same drive

Detroit Free Press

Well, what the heck was that?

The Detroit Lions opened with a strange, confusing game that offered hope of progress and the reality that this team is a long way away.

“We let this one slip away,” Lions quarterback Jared Goff said after the Philadelphia Eagles’ 38-35 victory Sunday.

Did we see discipline? No. We saw mistakes and dropped passes and blown opportunities and bonehead penalties, which was concerning.

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“Just some self-inflicted wounds,” coach Dan Campbell said.

Yes, we’ve heard that around here a few times — over the past 65 years or so.

So you could say: Same old …

Then again, they only lost by three points to a darn good team, a playoff participant last season and a contender this one.

So that felt different and new.

Did we see a well-oiled machine? Yes and no.

At times, the Lions’ offense was rolling, creating massive holes, running hard, fighting back and putting up a noteworthy 35 points.

We also saw a passing attack that sputtered and disappointed. This game was an offensive donut, with a middle filled with nothing but empty three-and-outs.

“There was a couple of hiccups there,” Campbell said.

Did we see an improved defense? Ah … no.

The Eagles ran for 216 yards — and the Lions’ defense is ultimately what is going to hold this team back. In the end, it couldn’t get the stop it needed the most.

We saw how a mobile quarterback can make a pass rush look silly — no matter how many resources you put into a defensive line. At one point, it seemed as if the only time the Lions actually touched Jalen Hurts was on late hits.

“He’s very slick,” rookie linebacker Malcom Rodriguez said.

Ultimately, there is only one question that hangs over this franchise: Did we see reason for hope?

That’s where this gets tricky.

There were good things — mainly how D’Andre Swift ripped off 144 yards.

“I feel like we left a lot out there,” Swift said. “Too many third (downs), three-and-outs. We just let it slip away from us.”

But there were so many mistakes — both from the players and in the coaches’ decisions — that it looked like a dress rehearsal gone bad. “I was proud at how we fought our way back, but we got a lot to clean up,” Campbell said.

I suppose that’s the optimistic way of looking at it.

Assuming this can be fixed. Especially that defense. And I’m not so sure about that.

A different feeling for the fans

Now, here’s the crazy thing.

Before the game, everything felt different. A group of Lions fans huddled outside Ford Field, heckling Philadelphia fans, talking trash. It was fun as heck to listen to. There was an electricity on the streets. And the noise in Ford Field, featuring a sellout crowd, was deafening.

Over the past few years, any noise in Ford Field felt manufactured, like it was being pumped through the speakers.

But this felt real.

This was “on your feet, scream your brains out” enthusiasm.

It’s the Dan Campbell effect — a ripple from HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”

Everybody just wants to believe.

And when the Lions took a quick lead, I thought: This is what a home playoff game would sound like.

But the Eagles responded by scoring three straight touchdowns and it was like reality hit the crowd; all the emotion was sucked out of Ford Field, in such a familiar way.

Don’t rush to judgment

And then … wait a second. This team fought back. It made it close. It made it even more interesting.

So what was that?

“We had a chance at the end and couldn’t close it out,” Campbell said.

You can believe him or mock him.

Or take my approach: Just wait to make a judgement.

Don’t overreact, either way, to this game. Because it was all over the map.

Good play, horrible play. Improvement and digression and fight.

Make no mistake, Goff has to be better; he has to be more consistent and get onto the same page with his receivers.

“First day stuff,” he said.

Actually, it seems like more than 60 years of first days around here.

And the Lions have to be smarter and more disciplined.

“I just let my team down,” defensive back Tracy Walker said about his ejection after double unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. “Me, as a team captain, I’ve just got to be better. I was hot-headed at the moment, and like I said, I’ve just got to make better decisions at the end of the day.”

But most of all, they just have to be better across the board; those rookies have to grow up in a hurry.

“Listen here, he’ll be better next week,” Campbell said of No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson, who didn’t make much of an impact on the defensive line. “He needed this and they all needed it. Most rookies, that’s the way it goes, you get into your first game and it’s just a little different. And look, I’ve got to watch the tape, but I know that he’ll be better next week than he was this week. And so will Rodriguez and so will all those rookies — so will (safety) Kerby (Joseph). And so — that’s just nature of the game.”

I keep reminding myself: This is a work in progress. Not a finished product.

I saw reason for hope. And I saw reasons why this team is no different than any other Lions team.

“The good news is that we didn’t play very well and we lost by three,” Campbell said. “That’s what you can take away from this.”

Which is different, I suppose. And yet, it felt familiar.

So I’m not sold either way. And I walked away confused.

Because I’m still not sure what this team is.

Or what it could become.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter@seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go tofreep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.

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