There goes autumn. Before it even started. Detroit’s football season has been knifed at the knees, it is bent, bleeding, broken — and the trees haven’t dropped their leaves yet. The Lions lost Sunday, which is no longer news around here, but how they lost was unique, even for them. Blown snaps. A rainstorm of penalty flags. Last year’s quarterback returning to burn them. And the final crushing blow: Superman humbled.

Barry Sanders (yes, Barry Sanders) fumbled twice in the fourth quarter — and he hadn’t fumbled since the Bush administration. He was not the reason the Lions sunk Sunday, just a symbol of their illness:

If there’s no way they can lose, don’t worry, they’ll invent one.

“This is the lowest I’ve been in my life as a football coach,” moaned Wayne Fontes, after the Lions’ home opener, a come-from-ahead, 20-17 defeat to the bumbling Arizona Cardinals, who tried their hardest to give this game away, but finally had to take it home themselves. Detroit outrushed and outpassed them, but also outfumbled and outpenaltied them. The game had as much discipline as a Pauly Shore movie. First down. Penalty! Second down. Penalty! Third down. Penalty!

The Old Oak Tree never saw this much yellow.

“Unbelievable,” offensive tackle Lomas Brown would say. “And ugly.”

True. But the Lions still lost. They are 0-3. Their next game is against the Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers. This is the best collection of talent Detroit has had in years, and it will now take a month of victories just to get it over .500.

There goes autumn. Passing the blame

“No way we should have lost this game, it is ridiculous, not to this team, no way, no how!” This was Robert Porcher talking. Porcher is the much-heralded defensive lineman who the Lions keep saying is about to explode with greatness. Sunday he exploded in another fashion. First, he was called for three penalties — on a day when the Lions drew 15 yellow flags — and afterward he exploded at the suggestion that he was to blame.

“My last penalty (roughing the passer on second-and-19 during the Cardinals’ winning drive) did not cost us the game! It did not! And if anyone is saying that, they’re wrong!

“Last week, I took a lot of heat for my play. Well, this week, I’m disappointed with the play calling. And I want to see who steps up and takes the blame.”

Uh-oh. That’s a slap at the coaching staff. Sorry, Robert. You’ll have to get in line to do that.

We were here first.

Besides, while the final fault may indeed lie with Wayne Fontes’ crew, Porcher is wrong. He is to blame, along with all the other players in the silver-and-blue uniforms. It wasn’t Fontes, after all, who did the following:
* First quarter: Failed to score a touchdown with first-and- goal from the 6.
* Second quarter: Blew a scoring chance by fumbling a snap and losing it 32 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
* Third quarter: Had a touchdown called back on an illegal motion penalty — on a lineman who weights 324 pounds, so how fast could he have been going? — and failed to score on fourth-and-inches with the ball in Sanders’ hands.
* Fourth quarter: Fumbled twice, and allowed Dave Krieg to toss a prayer on fourth-and-10 to Anthony Edwards, who had to spin backward, but still caught the ball over the Lions defender, Corey Raymond.

“Tracy Scroggins was so close, he got a hand on Krieg,” the players would say. You know what? Who cares about a hand? On fourth-and-10, you smother the guy! A hand means nothing. You make the play or you don’t.

And this is the Lions’ problem. Statistically, they are fine. Scott Mitchell’s numbers are good. The defense’s sacks are up. If football were played on paper, Detroit might be undefeated.

But on the field, where it counts, the Lions do not make the big plays. They get a hand on the quarterback, but they don’t bring him down. They get to an inch of the goal line but don’t punch it through. They poke the pass into the air, but they don’t intercept it.

Sunday’s game should have been 20-0 at halftime. Instead it was 10-6. Great teams don’t have to fight for their lives at the end of the fourth quarter. Great teams are drinking Gatorade and watching the subs play at that point.

“We’re not out there trying to lose, believe me,” said Mitchell, who threw for 217 yards and a touchdown, but still could not be described as commanding.
“I didn’t go out and try to fumble that snap. What can I do?

“I can’t control Krieg throwing a touchdown on fourth-and- 10. I can’t control Barry fumbling twice — not that he was the problem. It’s just . . . you know . . .”

He sighed. He was frustrated. He had been booed by the fans. What else is new in Detroit?

“It’s tough for him,” Brown said. “I told Scott, if he needs someone to lean on, he can lean on me.”

How about the rest of us, Lomas? Got room on that shoulder for a few million heads? Attitude at the top

A word here about Sanders. Before his fumbles — both of which were stripped — he was having a marvelous game, 147 yards and a touchdown, and he was certainly the hero if the Lions had won. Sanders ducked out without talking to the media after the loss, which is understandable, if a little disappointing, since he always has been a guy who keeps football in perspective.

But what can he do? He is talent. And talent is not the big problem here. It is intangibles. Players rising to the occasion. Players believing not only that they can win — but that they’re supposed to win. Players knowing instinctively that you don’t let an inferior team hang around a game — you wipe it out early.

This is attitude, and it has to come from the top. It is the reason Wayne Fontes’ chair is hot to the touch this morning. He heard the boos. He heard the chorus of “Wayne must go!”

He shrugged it off. He is a survivor, seven years and counting.

“It’s bizarre,” he said, half-smiling, “Barry can have a good run, and they’re up and cheering, and the very next play, they’re yelling, ‘Fire the coach.’

“I’ve heard that song before. It’s an old song. One day they’ll run out of quarters.”

Not before he does.

There goes autumn. CUTLINE: Barry Sanders kneels on the sidelines after his fumbles gave the Cardinals the chance they needed. But the Lions were not able to make the big plays Sunday. More in Sports, 1D. Scott Mitchell (19) fumbles the ball in the fourth quarter. Mitchell completed most of his passes but the winless Lions, in their home opener, gave the game away.

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