Allen Park — Outside Ford Field, you’ll see a symbol of a low-key past, when the Barry Sanders statue is celebrated. Inside Ford Field, you should hear waves of unprecedented clamor.
Shifting times, shifting sights and sounds. The Lions have stirred their fans and alerted the NFL in ways we’ve rarely seen. They’ve done a lot in less than a year, including an opening victory at Kansas City against the Super Bowl champs, to raise expectations, decibels and maybe even a roof. And yet, so much more to do, starting Sunday against Seattle.
That’s the point Dan Campbell, Jared Goff and the rest of the Lions want to make, that they’re only 1-0, last season’s flourish doesn’t carry over and the outside noise won’t affect them. But the inside noise? Oh yes, they’re ready for all of it.
The Lions are preparing to man up. And fans apparently are preparing to mask up, heeding the call from safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson to wear blue ski masks to the game.
“Blue ski masks everywhere,” Gardner-Johnson said. “What did (GM) Brad (Holmes) say, ‘We villains,’ right? It’s part of us, it’s just the culture. I’m changing it. No paper bags. Ski masks. We taking what’s ours.”
The Lions brand Ford Field as the Den, where the Pride roams. It sounds kind of corny, considering in the 21-year existence of the stadium, the Lions haven’t exactly been intimidating (Their home record is 73-96).
Now, dare I say, it could morph into the Blue Zoo? Gardner-Johnson’s ski mask idea was spawned by a “Villain” sweatshirt worn by Holmes before the draft in April. They’re not trying to become the new-age Bad Boys, but they’re touting toughness, physical play and relentlessness.
These monikers only stick if they’re authentic, so the Lions are putting the onus on themselves, and the fans are taking the leap. It’s a timely leap so far, with the Lions winning nine of their past 11 games, dating to last season’s 8-2 finish. We don’t know how many blue masks will be worn, although Amazon was sold out earlier in the week. The Lions are tacitly approving, with the caveat that fans can be rowdy, not unruly, and can’t wear the masks going through security.
“I told C.J., ‘Alright, just remember we’ve got kids coming to this game,’” Campbell said with a smile. “Let’s let them have it and let’s enjoy it, man. It should be loud out there, but remember there’s moms and dads with kids around, so let’s keep it somewhat friendly here. Anyway, it’s good.”
‘I can’t wait’
It’s especially good if the Lions are especially good. Ford Field will be sold out, and season tickets already are sold out. Single-game prices on secondary markets have more than doubled. The noise might hit unparalleled levels, and it’s up to the Lions to ignite it. They have a solid chance to do so, as 5.5-point favorites over the 0-1 Seahawks, who will be missing both starting offensive tackles due to injury. There’s also the little matter of vengeance, as the Seahawks stole a playoff spot from the Lions last season, as well as a 48-45 victory in Ford Field.
“I can’t wait,” receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown said. “I know the fans are pumped up; they’re juiced. We’re juiced to see them.”
St. Brown is one of the Lions’ burgeoning stars, along with Aidan Hutchinson. The former Michigan standout led all rookies with 9.5 sacks last season and was a terror against the Chiefs, with seven quarterback pressures but no sacks. The ballyhooed road opener wasn’t too big for the Lions, and now comes a similar test. The defense will be challenged by quarterback Geno Smith and a Seahawks offense that rushed for 235 yards against them and never punted.
Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn remembers it painfully well. By the second half of last season, the Lions figured some things out defensively, then added fortification via free agency and the draft. The Seahawks lost at home to the Rams, 30-13, last week, so they’ll arrive a little wounded. I’m guessing not as personally wounded as the Lions, who also lost to Seattle, 51-29, in the 2021 season.
“I mean, I hear you guys talk about how they have a bad taste in their mouth (from last week) — well hell, I’ve got one in my mouth too,” Glenn said. “We gave up 50 points damn near twice. So, our guys will be ready to play.”
The Lions have to watch Smith closely, as well as former Michigan State star running back Kenneth Walker III. Offensively, the Lions weren’t great against the Chiefs, but they’ve established a healthy pattern of creative and smart play. Goff’s interception-less streak has reached 359 passes, something he’d rather not discuss, even as he closes in on record streaks by Aaron Rodgers (402) and Tom Brady (399).
“I haven’t thought about it once,” Goff said. “Yeah, it’s a cool thing to look back on one day. … But it’s not, by any means, the focus.”
Goff’s calm demeanor sets the offense’s identity. The identity of the Lions’ defense — last in yards allowed in 2022 — is still forming.
The loquacious Gardner-Johnson gives it an electric jolt, coming from Philadelphia, where he tied for the league lead in interceptions, as the Eagles reached the Super Bowl. He brings a fresh perspective, and he unleashes it with entertaining verbal bursts that match his style of play.
All the Lions needed to see was the huge swath of Honolulu blue in the crowd at Kansas City — as many as 10,000 Lions fans made the trip — to know what they’re stirring. It’s believed Ford Field was at its all-time loudest on a Monday night in 2011 when a record 67,861 showed up. The noise helped cause nine — nine! — false starts by the Bears in a 24-13 Lions victory to go 5-0.
“I was just with one of the most … passionate (fan bases) of Philly, so I can only imagine what it’s going to be like (here Sunday),” Gardner-Johnson said. “From what I’ve seen in the crowd, we got probably the most ruthless fans in the game. From talking crap, they feed off of us, they yell the loudest, and that was a home game for KC. They just love their Lions team, so I just think the more we win, the more we’re going to see true Lions fans.”
There’s no masking his intentions, or the team’s contention. At its visual core, it’s a bonding thing for fans and players, a joint culture, so to speak.
I’ll even suggest a psychological angle. You wear a mask, people don’t recognize you. Many fans around here and elsewhere might not recognize these Lions. At game time, they take the mask off, literally and figuratively, and reveal their identity. Pretty deep, huh?
There are multiple ways to show who they are. The best way, of course, is to win. If that continues, no sense masking your emotions or your intentions. Whether it’s a Den or a Din or a Zoo, Ford Field might be hosting scenes we’ve never seen, and making noise we’ve never heard.