The Lions sideline explodes as the clock winds down Sunday, securing the win against the Washington Redskins at Ford Field in Detroit. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Some couldn't bear to watch. They stood on the sideline, heads down, helmets in hand, and waited for the crowd to tell them when it was over, when it was real.
Some couldn't help but watch, glued to the final shrieking moment, to the last crucial tackle, right up until the mightiest roar they'd heard in a long time.
The size of the Lions' burden finally, fully was revealed in the enormity of the relief, in the cheers and the hugs and the tears. The Lions won a game Sunday for the first time in 21 torturous months, beating the Washington Redskins 19-14, and as momentous occasions go, this was truly unique.
How do you celebrate the end of historic ignominy? You do it with a gasp and a sigh, and some legitimately gutsy football. The second-longest losing streak in NFL history is over at 19 games, and nobody knows where the Lions go from here. But finally, they can stop looking back, and stop being reminded of all the nasty places they've been.
The Lions are still just a 1-2 team trying to find itself, but oh, at least they can run without the weight of all their sins tattooed on their foreheads. When Larry Foote knocked down Washington's Ladell Betts at the Lions' 23 after a couple of wild laterals, and the clock expired, the emotions spilled -- from the players, from the stands, from the rookie quarterback who won his first NFL game, to the veteran offensive linemen who have been through it all.
"I couldn't watch the last two plays, I just couldn't," said center Dominic Raiola, in his ninth season here. "I really couldn't control myself at the end, the emotion was awesome. I didn't know what to do. I mean, we went 19, 20 weeks without this feeling, so how can we know how it feels?"
They couldn't, which is why, as he described the frantic final moments, Raiola's voice cracked, and the words came haltingly.
Time to move forward
But they knew what to do in this game, the first victory for head coach Jim Schwartz, who always said the burden of the past should not be shackled to his new team. But he knew it wouldn't end until it ended, and it ended with the Lions actually pounding their running game at a back-pedaling opponent, with young Matthew Stafford hitting clutch pass after clutch pass, with the defense rising up and stuffing the Redskins.
For a long while, the Lions dominated. And then they hung on, and it didn't matter that the Redskins threatened, and it didn't matter that the smallest crowd in Ford Field history, 40,896, witnessed it, or that it was blacked out on local TV. Actually, it was the smallest crowd for a Lions home game since 1989, and many were still there after Schwartz addressed his players in the locker room, then sent them back out to thank the fans.
That's what the players did, racing down the tunnel and onto the field, slapping hands with those that remained, and no, it was not excessive celebration. It was utter relief, eradicating a blemish that had to go before anything could grow in its place.
"We'd like to get to a point where a regular-season win isn't celebrated that much," Schwartz said. "The monkey is off our back, not only for the guys that have been here but for the organization, the city of Detroit. It was well-deserved. We don't need any praise or anything like that, but I thought the fans that have stuck with us -- I mean, they've had a hard time -- deserved to celebrate with the team."
It was a theme oft-repeated in the dressing room, which was more reflective than giddy. Owner William Clay Ford Sr. wore a big smile when he referred to the monkey on his back as "King Kong," although he certainly knows one rousing win doesn't wipe out all the losing.
"Now we can go ahead and start winning the way we could've before," Ford said. "I'm hoping this gets us over the hump, and we develop a winning attitude and it takes off from there."
Well, that's always the hope, unrequited for so many years.
Rebuilding just starting
The Lions aren't delusional. They know a long season is just starting and they're still rebuilding. But after the first 0-16 in NFL history last season, this had become one of the brutal stories in Detroit sports history.
Sure, there's a big Tigers pennant push unfolding this week, but this is the relief our city craved, right? OK, I'm being dramatic, just a tad. But for the players in the middle of it, there was no diminishing the emotions.
Jeff Backus has played offensive tackle here for nine years, and while others turned away from the final play, afraid something would go wrong again, Backus stared straight at it.
"I wanted to see every second," he said, and the words stuck in his throat. "I wanted to see the faces of the fans, just absorb all of it. Even though as an organization we didn't let last year carry into this year, we weren't going to be able to move past it until we got a win. We gotta go out and earn people's respect back, and this was a start."
It was exactly that, a start. The line blocked well and Kevin Smith ran hard, gaining 101 yards before leaving with a shoulder injury, which is a concern. Stafford is the future, and in his third game, he had moments of terrific poise, along with that whip-strong arm.
Savoring the moment
The Lions may not be title-worthy for a long while yet, but there's no way they could be anything other than a punch line until they got this victory. Sure, all the platitudes technically apply -- hey, it's just one victory, it could turn sour again at Chicago next week, etc.
We'll save those realities for later. On this day, when the Lions rushed back out to greet the fans that had stayed, it was much more than just one win.
"I hadn't smiled in so long, and now my teeth are hurting I'm smiling so much," offensive tackle Gosder Cherilus said. "You saw how loud those fans were? That was beautiful, so beautiful."
It was different, that's for sure, the Lions' first victory (not counting the always-riveting preseason) since Dec. 23, 2007, when they beat the Chiefs, 25-20.
It was needed, that's absolutely for sure.
"It was just a small thing to be able to go out there and show our appreciation to the fans," Backus said. "It's been tough for a year-and-a-half. Nobody wants to associate themselves with losers, and that's what we were."
He said "were," and yes, the past tense finally fit, for a game, a week, who knows if it lasts or leads to something more. Eventually, this will be about determining where the Lions are going. For one game, it was simply about burying where (and who?) they'd been.