TAMPA, Fla. -- I scrambled up to the press box here late Sunday afternoon, seeking verification of some basic facts. Namely: The current year and the final score of the game that had just concluded at Raymond James Stadium.
No, I hadn't fallen into a heat-induced delerium. In fact, I had just left the Detroit Lions' air-conditioned locker room. Therein, I heard:
Quarterback Matthew Stafford talk about the latest ailment that forced him to stagger off the field.
Coach Jim Schwartz rant about "stupid" football and "inexcusable" mistakes, promising that "it's not going to be a real pleasant film session" on Monday.
Guard Rob Sims express his conviction that coaches would "jump us on a whole bunch of stuff" in the coming days.
Hmmm. Tapping into my long history as a reporter, I confirmed that Sunday's game in fact took place in 2011. The Lions defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 27-20 in a game that wasn't as close as the final score indicated, winning their season opener for the first time in four years and putting on display many of the components that caused so many of us to catch Lions Fever this offseason.
That Stafford's "injury" was nothing more than cramps, and that Schwartz was able to discuss Sunday's troubles in the context of a victory, marked the start of a new era that only the Lions could indoctrinate. They are far from perfect and in fact could have botched Sunday's game. But overcoming injuries and "bad football," as Schwartz called it during a different portion of his rant, is half the battle in the NFL. There are no perfect teams, and just about every one of them has a knucklehead like Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus, whose fourth-quarter unsportsmanlike conduct was almost certainly what Schwartz was referring to when he said: "There are some things that happened in this game that are inexcusable and will not continue."
Indeed, Cherilus' post-whistle shove of a Bucs defender stopped the clock with 1 minute and 24 seconds remaining and the Bucs out of timeouts. It gave the Bucs enough time to mount a potential game-tying drive, but ultimately they ran out of time. It also gave Schwartz exactly what any coach wants: A victory with plenty of material to humble his players with moving forward.
You see what's happening here, right? One of Schwartz's biggest tasks this season will be to shield players from the hype we've all created for them. It's always preferable to have players who believe they can be good than to be convinced that they already are.
But let's make no mistake here. For the most part, what we saw Sunday verified what we thought about the Lions this summer. Playing in a heat index that reached 94 degrees, the Lions controlled the game from start to finish. Frankly, much of the Bucs' success came after Lions breakdowns, namely Aqib Talib's 28-yard interception return for the touchdown and Sammie Stroughter's 78-yard kickoff return.
Indeed, Schwartz said, "They couldn't really move the ball on our defense but they had 10 points in the first quarter mainly because of two mistakes."
But Stafford and receiver Calvin Johnson connected for two highlight-reel touchdowns -- one a 36-yard play on fourth down after Talib bit on a double move, and the other a 1-yard pass Stafford shoved in Johnson's direction during the third quarter just as his right calf seized.
"During the process of dropping back, I was losing it," Stafford said. "I bet I looked pretty stupid on TV. He made me look pretty good once again."
I'm sure it took the breath of many Lions fans to see Stafford on his back on the sidelines while athletic trainers worked on his leg. But he never missed a snap, finishing with the second 300-yard game of his career and the Lions' first on opening weekend since Bobby Layne threw for 364 yards in 1953.
Stafford made a handful of mistakes himself, throwing high for tight end Will Heller on Talib's interception and nearly throwing a second on a pass behind running back Jahvid Best. But Stafford appeared in command of the offense from the start, and the Lions never trailed after the 36-yard play to Johnson.
"We didn't play our best football out there but we still got a win," Stafford said. "That's a good sign. Obviously you won't want those mistakes to keep coming back. We've got to fix those."
As Stafford and the offense rolled up 431 total yards, the Lions' defense largely shut down Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman. Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch served in a modified spy role, sacking Freeman once and finishing with two quarterback hits. Freeman had 98 passing yards through the first three quarters, and the Bucs a total of 128 yards, before the Lions' late-game breakdowns.
"This is the beginning of something special and I'm glad to be a part of it," Tulloch said. "It's crazy when you win and you know you can play better. That's what makes this so exciting. We can just keep working."
That's what I think will distinguish this edition of the Lions. Trust me, I understand why Schwartz was upset. Any coach would have been in that situation. But he doesn't get to rain on our parade. "We can just keep working" is much different sentiment than "back to the drawing board." The Lions are done with that place. This is, after all, 2011.