The Detroit Lions' 2013 season started with a tumultuous offseason. After making almost no moves in the 2012 offseason, the Lions did just the opposite the following year. The Lions said goodbye to big names like Kyle Vanden Bosch, Cliff Avril, Gosder Cherilus, Jeff Backus and the most-beloved Jason Hanson. The Lions did their due diligence trying to replace these names by snagging Reggie Bush, Glover Quin and Jason Jones from free agency, among a few others. The draft brought more excitement with the Lions picking up the raw but extremely talented Ziggy Ansah fifth overall. The Lions rounded out the draft with several players expected to make an immediate impact, including Darius Slay, Larry Warford and Sam Martin.
The general feeling among fans going into the preseason was cautious optimism. We were happy the Lions went out and made changes that were clearly needed, but there were a lot of questions that remained unanswered: Could the Lions succeed with their patchwork offensive line? Did the Lions have a good enough set of defensive ends to go with their talented defensive tackles? Is this the year that the Lions' young secondary makes the next step?
Just minutes into the first preseason game, Ansah eased a lot of fans' worries. In his first defensive drive in the NFL, Ziggy snagged a Mark Sanchez screen pass and took it for six.
However, the rest of the preseason was not as reassuring. The Lions quickly fell behind the Cleveland Browns 17-0, making Brandon Weeden look like Tom Brady. And although the Lions finished the preseason with big wins over the New England Patriots and Buffalo Bills, the first-string offense looked lost. Matthew Stafford finished the preseason with a completion percentage under 50% and just 1 touchdown.
But having been fooled by the preseason before, we reserved our judgment and looked forward to some real football. And we quickly forgot about all the offensive troubles when our bright new shiny objects took over the game. First, Bush took a screen pass 77 yards for a touchdown, and then little-known Joseph Fauria did this:
...and a legend was born.
Were there issues with this Lions team? Sure. They had given up a huge touchdown on their first defensive play of the game, and they had started the game slowly again, but we forgave them because BRIGHT SHINY NEW TOYS, and after a 4-12 season, we were happy just to be on the winning side again.
The next few weeks were a mixed bag. The Lions dropped a game in Arizona after losing Bush for the second half, but they picked up their first ever win at Washington and, despite being smote by the Pizza Gods, Detroit notched a huge win over the Chicago Bears on the shoulders of Bush and this fantastic run:
The following week, however, the Lions were thoroughly handled by the Green Bay Packers in a game in which Calvin Johnson did not play. Detroit held with Green Bay for most of the game but couldn't get the run game going without the deep threat of Megatron. Big plays continued to plague the defense, as the Packers' only touchdown of the day came on busted coverage that resulted in an 83-yard TD pass.
The next two games were against similar AFC foes, the Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals. The two teams were defined by their tough defense but had questions on offense. After struggling in the first half in Cleveland, the Lions rebounded and handled the Browns with Big Joe Fauria stealing the headlines with his 3 touchdowns on the day. He literally ran out of celebrations by the end of the game.
The Bengals game was a shootout, with both quarterbacks eclipsing 350 yards passing and both tallying 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions on the day. However, the Lions couldn't keep up, as the Bengals kicked the game-winning 54-yard field goal as time expired.
Though the Lions held just a 4-3 record at the time, there was reason for optimism. Stafford had been putting up stellar numbers again. Through 7 weeks, Stafford had completed 61.4% of his passes, thrown 15 touchdowns and had just 4 interceptions. And he had just played games against two of the best statistical defenses in the league and had thrown 7 touchdowns and 1 interception. He was on pace to have a season very much like his 2011 campaign.
The defense, on the other hand, was playing inconsistently. They looked solid for much of the game but were giving up big plays at a troublesome rate. However, they were creating just enough big plays to keep their head above water. Through seven games, the Lions had a +5 turnover margin and had not yet had a game in which they had a negative turnover margin. The defense was being led by breakout star DeAndre Levy, who quickly emerged as the Lions' biggest playmaker. Levy already had 58 tackles and 4 interceptions, and the Lions hadn't reached the halfway point in the season yet.
Then came the Dallas game. This was a game that, as a fan, is still hard to comprehend. The Lions outgained the Cowboys 623-268. Yet they needed a fortunate holding penalty on Dallas and a miracle 80-yard, 50-second touchdown drive to come out victorious. The game was defined by Stafford, who recovered from his two previous interceptions by throwing the best pass of his life and following that up with a falsetto rendition of Riley Reiff's name and one of the ballsiest calls I've seen in the NFL. Oh, and Calvin put up a mere 329 yards in that game, too.
As fans, it was easy to get caught up in the excitement that followed: the national attention, the mic'd up videos, the records being broken. But it was the underlying problems that were being swept under the rug that would end up defining the rest of the Detroit Lions season.