Lions running back Aaron Brown cruises into the end zone in the third quarter in front of Falcons' Antoine Harris. (Robin Buckson/The Detroit News)
Tap, tap, tap.
Is this thing on?
As you'd expect, there were a few glitches for the Lions early in their preseason opener Saturday at Ford Field.
For starters, Theo "Gridiron" Spight's microphone wasn't working for the national anthem, so a sparsely populated Ford Field -- the 34,785 paid attendance was mostly a mirage -- dutifully picked up the slack, singing loudly and proudly.
They give and they give and they give, these Lions fans. And for what? A $45 parking lot fee and $8.50 beers Saturday? Well, the new guy, head coach Jim Schwartz, made sure to thank them at his first official postgame news conference.
"Man, I got chills on the sideline," Schwartz said, adding that there "are a lot of good Americans all around the country, (but) none finer than here in Detroit."
OK, so that's one crisis averted. And the 27-26 victory over the Atlanta Falcons on a last-second kick by Jason Hanson certainly felt good in the end, too.
But the trouble actually started before the ad-lib anthem, right about the time the home team came charging out of the tunnel, all dressed in ... gray?
What did we learn?
No fewer than 16 Lions players, including a half-dozen starters, were in T-shirts and shorts Saturday -- backup vocalists, if you will, just like the paying customers.
And don't think the two guys everyone came to see didn't notice.
Congratulations, Daunte Culpepper. You got the starting nod for the exhibition opener, all right. But the veteran quarterback trotted out on the field Saturday with one hand figuratively tied behind his back. The Lions' starting receivers Saturday were Keary Colbert and Adam Jennings. Watching from the sideline were arguably the top four wideouts on the roster -- Calvin Johnson, Bryant Johnson, Dennis Northcutt and John Standeford -- along with tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Casey FitzSimmons.
So you can forget about trying to evaluate the quarterbacks in this one, right?
Wrong, Schwartz said.
"No, I think maybe it's a good evaluation," he said afterward, right after he'd done what every good head coach does, complaining about too many penalties and missed assignments. "Because you have to grind a little bit. When your playmakers are limited, it puts even a little more on the quarterback. So maybe that's a little better evaluation."
OK, then. What did we learn?
Well, for one thing, Culpepper's offseason Jenny Craig routine clearly has paid dividends. With few open receivers, the Lions' incumbent No. 1 scrambled and bought time in the pocket like he used to in his previous life as an NFL starting quarterback. And sure, he stumbled on a key third-down play near the goal line. But ...
"Definitely, I feel stronger," admitted Culpepper, who finished 5-for-6 for 41 yards as the Lions went out of their way to emphasize the run early. "My feet, my legs -- I feel like I've finally gotten them back, to be the player I want to be. And I feel comfortable."
A rookie with poise
Don't get too comfortable, though, Daunte. The kid's gaining fast, if he's not already in front.
Matthew Stafford, the grinning No. 1 overall pick, ignored whatever rookie jitters he had -- actually, he insists there were none -- and gave the fans a glimpse of what they've been waiting for the last half-century or so.
He shrugged off an ill-advised interception on the opening drive of the second half -- Tony Gilbert returned it 42 yards for a touchdown -- and led a nine-play, 80-yard touchdown drive of his own on the very next possession.
"Once I got out there," Stafford said, "I just felt at home."
Nodded Schwartz: "That's part of his personality. That's one of the reasons we drafted him. He's not skittish, he's not afraid."
Not even of Colbert, who dropped three of his passes Saturday yet still was on good speaking terms with him after the game.
"It's gonna happen," Stafford said, smiling. "They're gonna drop balls just like I'm gonna miss 'em. And that's fine."
And so is this competition, if you must know.
Stafford's nonchalance aside, there's still plenty to be scared about with this team. (That blown-tackle, 40-yard touchdown run by the Falcons' Michael Turner sure looked familiar, didn't it?)
But as crazy as it sounds in this town, the most important position might be the least of this team's concerns.
Culpepper says he's "comfortable," Stafford feels "right at home," and for once, maybe the fans can rest easy about their starting quarterback, whatever his name is.
Daunte Culpepper, left, started the game, while Matthew Stafford made his ... (By Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)
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