Detroit Lions week 1 2014: Cautious optimism


With their 35-14 domination of the New York Giants, the Detroit Lions have now won their last 4 season openers by an average of more than 10 points each.

Awesome. A strong NFL season opener is always a great predictor of future success, right?

The Lions’ record in that time frame (dating back to the 2011 opener) is 22-28, including a 2011 playoff loss and this season’s Monday Night opener.

So no, not really.

Optimistic recaps of the Lions’ first game of the season will be rife with words phrases like “setting the tone,” or “turning the corner,” or even the infamous “on pace for [something really good].”

They need to stop. This was one game.

This game means no more or less than the following: The Detroit Lions have played and won a single regular season game in 2014.

Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way first: That win is important. When you only have 16 chances to cash in, every made or missed opportunity changes the complexion of the season. This one is no different.

Particularly, winning handily over a conference opponent, especially maintaining a semblance of control through the entire game, is a good start to the season, so there is plenty to feel good about. Some of the high points:

Sep 8, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) during player introductions prior to the game against the New York Giants at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

  • Matthew Stafford looked more comfortable running the offense than at perhaps any time since 2011. He showed great footwork and better decision-making. At no point did he appear close to turning the ball over. Arguably his only really questionable decision ended up caught by Calvin Johnson in the back of the end zone. He even audibled a couple plays at the line that turned into solid gains.

Sep 8, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions cornerback Darius Slay (23) tackles New York Giants wide receiver Rueben Randle (82) during the second quarter at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

  • The defense was shockingly effective. They had pressure in the backfield all night, the secondary kept plays in front of them and tackled well, and DeAndre Levy continues to make people look very silly for questioning his 2013 contract extension. Darius Slay in particular played a very solid game, which is great news for an embattled secondary.

Sep 8, 2014; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell during the first quarter against the New York Giants at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

  • It isn’t too common for the Lions to firmly regain control of a game after they start losing it. New head coach Jim Caldwell deserves some credit for steadying the ship. After a very sloppy, penalty-laden second-quarter, the Lions went penalty-free for the second half and dominated the rest of the way. That’s good not only because they showed the ability to play mistake-free football, but also that they were able to course-correct out of a slide at halftime.

Those are all great signs, but they’re only that: signs, and premature ones. Like signs that tell you the speed limit is 55 for the next two miles, but could go to 85 after that unless there’s road construction. Or the edge of a cliff.

Because of course, there are plenty of bad signs to observe as well.

An offensive line that got pushed around leading to a largely ineffective running game.

Nate Freese’s missed field goal.

That stretch before halftime when the Lions took 7 penalties for 70 yards, seemingly in a matter of minutes.

There also have to be serious concerns about the opposition. Being that the Lions and Giants have now only played each other this season, we have no idea whether the Giants are actually a quality opponent. They sure didn’t look it, but is that a result of the Giants’ poor play or the Lions imposing their will?

Sure, this win looks great now, but if the Giants lose their next 11 games, it isn’t nearly as lustrous (and nobody will care, based on what the Lions have done in that same time).

The point here is not to say that the Lions didn’t play well. They did, and fans should be extremely pleased with the way they look, regardless of the opponent. You’ll not hear the guy who has largely raged against college football for years suddenly make a strength of schedule argument about an NFL game.

But since the Lions are “on pace” for a 16-0 season, and Calvin Johnson is “on pace” for 2,624 receiving yards, it’s time to recognize that a “pace” hasn’t actually been set yet.

Problems aren’t “solved,” nobody is “back,” and it’s months too early for anyone to start working playoff numbers. All that has happened is the Lions have avoided tripping out of the starting blocks. If they beat Carolina on the road next week, they will have cleared the first hurdle.

But hey, after 1/16th of the season, there’s no reason not to enjoy a nice, nationally-televised victory. The Lions are 1-0, and that’s something to feel good about. Don’t let me tell you otherwise.