Detroit — For unsettling stretches, it looked like more of the same. The Lions were moving up and down the field, deftly mixing passes and penalties, taking circuitous routes that stalled. Everyone was waiting for something different, and then in a flash, something was.
Reggie Bush doesn’t run in circles. He sprints straight ahead, and unleashed a 77-yard dash that essentially clinched the Lions’ 34-24 season-opening victory against the Vikings Sunday. This is what they envisioned when they wooed the veteran running back, a timely snapshot of what’s possible.
On a day when the Lions occasionally dominated but struggled to get out of their own way, Bush turned short passes into long passes. He turned small plays into large plays, and gave Matthew Stafford an outlet he desperately needed. But the biggest impact Bush made in his Lions debut was a simple one — he wiped out mistakes.
As the season unfolds, the Lions will want to commit fewer than 11 penalties and squander fewer scoring opportunities, but at least they know Bush can make a difference while they try not to be the same.
“The guy’s a super-talented player, like we all know,” Stafford said. “By no means did we play perfect. The key is to win a few of them along the way while you’re trying to get really rolling.”
If the Lions can win a few of these, it’ll be fun to see what happens when they play sounder and smarter. After closing last season with eight straight losses, I’d argue this was the biggest opener in recent franchise history. It was a huge triumph for Jim Schwartz and his staff, to defeat a division rival the Lions seldom beat.
The Ford Field crowd of 62,461 reserved its loudest cheers for two traditional favorites — Stafford and Calvin Johnson — and one celebrated newcomer. The chants for “Reg-gie!” began immediately, after he scooted 12 yards on his first carry. The chants turned slightly darker when the opening drive ended with a botched field-goal attempt, and then Adrian Peterson ran 78 yards on Minnesota’s first play for a 7-0 lead.
The Lions shut down Peterson after that, and always seemed on the verge of control. It was if they had to score every touchdown twice. One Johnson touchdown catch was overturned on replay by the same goofy rule that burned him three years ago. Two Bush touchdowns were overturned on replay when his knee hit the turf a shade before the ball crossed the goal line.
For all the bizarre twists, there was nothing ambiguous about Bush’s 77-yard jaunt for the touchdown that made it 27-17. This was the reason the Lions brought him here, to force defenses to back off Johnson, to take short passes and run through the noise.
As the crowd got louder and louder, it seemed to push Bush harder and harder. He finished with 90 yards on 21 carries and 101 yards on four receptions.
“It’s definitely what we talked about,” Bush said. “While (defenses) are worried about Calvin and some of the other guys, we’re just taking advantage of it. I think you saw a little bit of what’s to come in the future.”
It’s why the Lions courted Bush so diligently, bringing him to town so Schwartz, Stafford and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan could present their pitch. They dialed up plays on their computers and showed him all the open spaces in Johnson’s wake. And if that wasn’t enough, receiver Nate Burleson made a national plea.
“We all realize what type of player he is — I went on NFL Network and basically begged him to consider us,” Burleson said. “We just gotta do our job as complementary players to get open, make plays, so he can get open. We got a ton of talent and we’re going to continue to display that all year.”
Bush, 28, signed a relatively modest four-year, $16-million deal and isn’t hunting for more fame. The former Heisman Trophy winner once dated Kim Kardashian, but didn’t arrive here in a fancy limo, metaphorically speaking. Teammates rave about his humility, and there’s a reason he works so hard — he still has something to prove. He won a Super Bowl with New Orleans in 2009 but has topped 1,000 yards rushing only once. His career high in receiving yards came as a rookie in 2006.
He showed bounce in his legs and toughness everywhere else Sunday. At one point, he ran to the sideline grimacing, until trainers popped his dislocated left thumb back in place. He then carried the ball in his right hand, shook off a slight groin strain and kept running.
“Everything was going against me early on, but I was able to pull it through,” Bush said. “The dumb penalties and turnovers were hurting us, but there was no doubt in my mind we were going to come back and regroup.”
Schwartz can’t be pleased with the mistakes, especially a ridiculous taunting penalty on Louis Delmas. Ndamukong Suh also took a bad penalty on a low block that negated DeAndre Levy’s touchdown on an interception return. Beyond that, the defensive line was mostly dominant, and Schwartz said he wouldn’t “apologize for anything this team did.”
In victory, that’s fine. It’s also easier to compensate when Bush busts long runs like Jahvid Best once did, before concussions ended his career here. In addition to his speed, Bush ran hard between the tackles, which wasn’t a surprise to the Lions.
“The only surprise with Reggie was how humble he is, how much of a team player he is,” Schwartz said. “You hear a lot of the TMZ and Heisman stuff, but he’s the right kind of guy.”
The hope is, Bush is the right guy at the right time in the right offense. The Lions wanted him badly, and almost immediately, he showed why.