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Lions' Larry Warford ready to stop being a spectator

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

As cool as it would've been to catch a pass in Week 6, the opportunity to run a route actually had a consequence for Larry Warford.

Because of the NFL's substitution rules, Warford had to exit the game after reporting as an eligible receiver. It was the first play the second-year Lions right guard could remember missing in his football career. The son of a military father, Warford said he didn't play football in eighth grade because the area of San Diego where he lived didn't have a team, but has been an ironman ever since.

"I've been injured, but I've never missed a play for it," Warford said. "I've never been legitimately injured."

Now, Warford is legitimately injured, and missing the past three games has been a completely new experience.

Coach Jim Caldwell said on 97.1 FM on Friday that Warford was improving, and the Lions expect him — and likely defensive tackle Nick Fairley, too — back for their stretch postseason run in December. Warford started running Tuesday, a good indicator his time on the sideline is drawing to a close.

Since suffering a knee injury in the first quarter against the Dolphins, Warford has been adjusting to the life of a spectator. When the Lions traveled to Arizona the following week, he stayed home and watched the 14-6 loss with practice squad offensive lineman Darren Keyton.

"It was weird," he said. "I never viewed football like that before because I felt like an intense fan in a way, like a really invested fan. It sucked, but at the same time, it was like, is this what really intense fans feel like? Getting all excited?

"I really want to be there and play. I've never missed a game before. It just felt really weird to me."

Not coincidentally, the Lions lost their first two games without Warford, who's been their best offensive lineman since they drafted him in the third round in 2013.

In some ways, though, the injury has helped the team's future outlook as rookie Travis Swanson, another third-round pick, has improved in each of his three starts. Granted, in Thursday's 34-17 win over Chicago, two of the Bears' top three defensive tackles were rookies with starter Jeremiah Ratliff inactive.

But Swanson's future looks promising, and if Warford suffers any setbacks, or center Dominic Raiola or left guard Rob Sims go down, the team will feel better about Warford filling the spot.

"He's gaining confidence," Raiola said Thursday. "We talked the whole game and really just communicating and getting more comfortable with each other. I think we'll get some guys back here soon, but I think it's great for him that he can get out there and really help us.

"That's why he got drafted in the third round. He's been productive and made some big plays today and good for him."

Even with Warford and left tackle Riley Reiff out, running back Joique Bell had the Lions' best rushing performance of the season Thursday, finishing with 23 carries for 91 yards, including 15 for 75 in the second half. Bell also scored two 1-yard rushing touchdowns, and Swanson pulled to the left side on both.

"He's not just filling space," Raiola said.

When Warford does return, Swanson will return to the bench but has proven he'll be ready to compete for a starting job next year.

And Warford hopes to avoid another injury because he prides himself on not missing a play, never mind multiple games. When he found out recently former Lions left tackle Jeff Backus went nearly 12 seasons without missing a start, he realized going a year and a half paled in comparison.

"I wasn't even close," he said.