The overriding question this past Saturday was not who was going to play against the Atlanta Falcons, but who was not going to play. The Lions media roster noted that 16 players were designated as out for the team’s first exhibition contest.
Individuals on that list included starting receivers Calvin Johnson and Bryant Johnson and back-up receiver Dennis Northcutt. Also excluded for game number one were defensive backs Keith Smith, Louis Delmas and Daniel Bullocks.
It did does not end there, because linebacker Jordan Dizon, defensive tackle Grady Jackson and tight ends Casey FitzSimmons and prized rookie Brandon Pettigrew, respectfully, were also missing in action.
I note all that say it is impossible to really gauge the Lions 27-26 come-from-behind win over the Atlanta Falcons in their preseason opener.
The announced attendance of 34,785 at Ford Field was mostly an illusion; however, the victory was real.
Sure, the Lions went 4-0 last preseason only to finish 0-16 in the regular season. The fact of the matter is the preseason means nothing; yet, in the case of the Lions the victory was like getting a giant monkey off their backs.
If the Lions had lost they would have had to endure another week of questions like, “Will they ever win a game?” . . . “Will they match last season’s winless record?” . . . “Should we start a poll betting the date of their first win?”
During training camp, Lions first-year coach Jim Schwartz and all the Lions players said all the right things concerning the mess of a team they have all inherited. All said, “That was last year or we were not a part of that team or we are not looking back; we are looking forward.”
However, in the jubilant Lions post-game looker room I could tell they really wanted to win that game and get themselves started in a positive direction.
“We have to get started somewhere,” linebacker Larry Foote said.
“We want to win, people on this team want to compete. We have a new coaching staff and some veteran players that were not a part of what happened last season. This is a new team and a fresh start.”
“Coach (Schwartz) told us after the game that this was a good start and he expressed how important practice is,” said rookie linebacker Spencer Smith.
“He noted that the hard work we have been putting in is the reason we did not give up and fought to the end.”
For me the most important part of the firstgame was the quarterback play. I was a little surprised because the Lions were without many top-line players. Their top four receivers, top two safeties, best defensive tackle and two top tight ends all missed the game because of injuries.
No matter. Daunte Culpepper, who started the game, finished 5-of-6 for 46 yards and also rushed three times for 12 yards. He led the offense on an 11-play, 50-yard drive that culminated in a 26-yard Jason Hanson field goal.
NFL overall No. 1 pick Matthew Stafford made his Lions debut at the 6:31 mark of the second quarter to a roaring ovation. His first pass was perfectly thrown down the middle of the field but dropped by receiver Keary Colbert. Stafford was 7-of-14 for 114 yards, a touchdown, an interception returned for a touchdown and three dropped passes. “It was fun, it was a blast,” Stafford said. “I threw it around a little bit. Obviously I don’t want to throw anymore pick sixes, but we jumped back and had a touchdown which helped us out.”
In the end it was Drew Stanton who guided the winning drive, setting up a 47-yard Hanson field goal as time expired with an 18-yard scamper to the Falcons 29. Stanton finished 8-of-13 for 114 yards with a touchdown and had 59 important yards rushing.
Sure, it was just an exhibition game but any win for this beleaguered franchise is a good one.
The old saying, you have to walk before you crawl is true with this team. The Lions have inched one kneecap out the NFL gutter and will try to move another inch this Saturday against the Cleveland Browns.