One of the most seductive things about the offseason is the fact that there is no accountability. There’s nothing happening on the field—and in the NFL, the offseason is, by design, a process where everyone improves. The draft is 100% positive; teams only have ‘bad’ drafts insofar as they improve less than other teams. There’s always an influx of talent for fans to hang their hope upon. Free agency is theoretically a two-way street--but with TV deals pushing the cap ever skyward, and the best and brightest NFL front-office execs having surgically removed much of the cap’s claws, players now leave via free agency almost exclusively when they’re not worth their asking price.
Unless a team has a truly disastrous implosion after the regular season ends (see: Broncos, Denver), the “ifseason”, as my friend DetFan1979 over at the Roar of the Lions calls it, is an six-month-long unimpeded snowball of hope and promise and things-are-looking-upness. When the Lions went out in their first preseason action and acquitted themselves well against last year’s darling of the NFL, the giant-killers who delivered 2008’s knockout punch on the very first play of the year . . . well, it was confirmation of all of the good vibes and glowing preseason reports we’d been hearing. The Kool-Aid, cornbread, et. al., were being quaffed and devoured, respectively, and I again felt confident that my seven-win prediction, thought crazy by most, was right on the money.
Then, Saturday night happened. Josh Cribbs made mincemeat of the Lions’ coverage unit on the opening kickoff—and though it was called back, I was already having traumatic flashbacks. Derek Anderson, for the first time since 2007, looked like Derek Anderson From 2007, marching down the field against the hapless Lions defense. Matthew Stafford, for whom I have been almost as big of a cheerleader as Tom Kowalski, proudly took the field as the Lions’ starting quarterback, and made his first course of action a brutal interception. He was completely, thoroughly, and effectively baited by the safety. After the ensuing field goal and kickoff, the Lions went three-and-out. Nick Harris punted it to Josh Cribbs, who took it 84 yards to the house. With 9:14 still left in the first quarter, the Lions were down 17-0.
I was still cleaning up from dinner when the ball was kicked off--and by the time I’d had a chance to grab a cold one and sit on the couch, it was already a three-score game. The exact same sickening scenario that had played out time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time and time again last season. It was horrific. Traumatic. Depressing. As Big Al of the Wayne Fontes Experience tweeted, “Matthew Stafford's QB rating for the 1st quarter: 2.8. That's going to be my blood alcohol level if this keeps up.”
I’m going to be honest: I didn’t watch much of the rest of the game. This is partly because we had company drop by unexpectedly, and partly because I knew I’d be doing an SFE on it and would see enough later. I popped in from time to time, and scoped out my fellow Lions’ bloggers takes . . . yeah.
Tom Kowalski floated us a nice little optimism balloon—which, as I fill my third cuppa’ joe, I appreciate. It is indeed why I’ve insisted that Stafford should start right away; he’s got to make these mistakes for himself—why wait until the Lions are good and he’s got to be good too? Why not throw him out there when the Lions are NOT good, and let him learn while the training wheels are still on?
Still, it did at least let me make peace with the fact that losses will come. Mistakes will come. You can’t turn a franchise that’s so far removed from respectability into a serious contender in a few months—and hey, even serious contenders lay eggs! It’s been so long since we’ve seen wining football, that we forget that winners lose, too. In any given 9-7 or 10-6 season, there will be a couple of real turkeys that, to borrow a phrase from Neil at Armchair Linebacker, cause fans to reach for the drain cleaner.
Maybe this was just a setback; maybe the 2009 Lions will put up a fight at home but again be a bad road team. Maybe this is part of a growing process for a team that is in, in spots, both very young and very old. There are still many players that figure to be key to the 2009 campaign that aren’t playing; guys like Calvin Johnson and Brandon Pettigrew. Remember how those two are supposed to be Matt Stafford’s crutches? Well, without them, he’s throwing to Adam Jennings and a rusty John Standeford; it's not like he can just throw it up to them and let them make a play.
Sigh. Deep breath! Patience; hope. Jim Schwartz and his staff will get a great teaching opportunity this week. They’ll aslo get a crack at another team in transition this weekend; the formerly (and possibly still currently-) mighty Colts in the comfort of Ford Field. Hope! Patience! Patience . . . and coffee.