DETROIT — It was a sunny 72 degrees out but people were wearing blue ski masks, at least the people who could get them before local stores, and then even Amazon, seemingly ran out. Who the heck buys ski masks in September, after all?
Detroit Lions fans are the answer. Cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson requested fans wear them to games and so these people, so desperate for anything to cling to, responded, the heat be damned.
Others posed for pictures around the new Barry Sanders statue outside Ford Field, a reminder of about the only thing the franchise can pridefully point to, even that career ended in frustration and (mostly) playoff futility like all the others.
In Pittsburgh and Green Bay and New England, parents teach their children to be fans of the local NFL team. Here they caution against it. Hope is a dangerous thing in Detroit because it never – like, never – comes through.
All those gathered inside Ford Field, let alone sports bars and living rooms all over the state, had already drunk the Honolulu Blue Kool-Aid though. If the 7-2 close to last season didn’t do it, then a Week 1 victory at Kansas City did. This was the most anticipated Lions season in, literally, lifetimes.
As such, a perfect late summer day could go on without them. There was a game to watch. This time it would be different.
And then came the missed chances, the pick 6, the bad fumble, the lack of a pass rush, the zero deep threats and the defense that turned Geno Smith into prime Seattle Russell Wilson. There was even some cautious play-calling down the stretch. It all led to a blown lead, a wasted comeback and eventually a 37-31 loss in overtime to the Seahawks, with Lions fans wandering back out in the streets mumbling through hoarse voices like they always have.
It’s now on head coach Dan Campbell and quarterback Jared Goff and everyone else to prove these aren’t the Same Old Lions.
“It’s not a sprint,” Campbell said after. “It’s a marathon.”
It is. It’s a 17-week marathon and all that matters for Detroit is to actually get to the playoffs and win a game.
That’s all most of the fans here want. Many can’t remember such a thing — the last one came after the 1991 regular season, with Sanders leading the way. Before that it was 1957.
So just win the division for the first time in over three decades. Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers are gone, after all. Just host a playoff game for the first time in a generation-plus.
Just do something, anything, in January. It’s not like the bar to clear is all that high.
The Lions aren’t known for their heartbreak the way the Browns or the Bills are, or the Red Sox and Cubs once were in baseball, because they never give their fans even the opportunity to get their heart broken.
They just lose. They just muddle about. They just exist. Some kind of tragic Super Bowl loss or championship game defeat would be welcome because it meant they did something good and fun to get there.
There is a reason it took 21 years for the Lions to sell out the season ticket allotment to 65,000-seat Ford Field. In a metro region of over four million, the vast majority of people had better things to do than invest — financially or emotionally or just sunny Sunday afternoons — in the team.
Will this year be different? Was this, as Campbell cautioned, just a speed bump, a cautionary tale and opportunity even to refocus?
“This is good,” Campbell said. “We’ll get a little humble pie.”
Imagine the Detroit Lions being too full of themselves.
There was neither enough pass rush nor Smith containment. Goff ended his lengthy no-interception streak, third-longest in NFL history at 383 attempts, at an inopportune time by tossing a fourth-quarter pick-six. Depth on the offensive line and running back position could be a problem. There are almost no deep threats at receiver, at least until Jameson Williams returns from an immature gambling suspension. Afterward, it was the Seahawks wearing blue ski masks to mock Gardner-Johnson's request.
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) September 17, 2023
And yet … for a franchise that knows what bad home-opening losses can portend, there is also a sense that there is too much talent, and too much hard work, to think one game is anything more than one game.
This was a bad loss on what should have been a great day. It doesn’t mean there still can’t be great days, at least in theory.
If those are to come, then Campbell needs to live up to his promise to fix the mistakes and clean up the errors and get everyone focused on football and only football. The hype train needed to be slowed. This likely helped.
“You come off a big victory and you can preach a lot of things,” Campbell said. “But this is the NFL.”
No need to tell the still-hopeful fans here. They know how cruel it can be. They are all-in now, though. The tickets have been bought. The masks have been ordered.
The Kool-Aid has been consumed.
Maybe a few beers too, at least to dim the pain and ease the concern.