A BEAUTIFUL STADIUM, BUT STILL AN UGLY TEAMHARRINGTON LEADS A LATE RALLY, BUT LIONS FALL TO PACKERS, 37-31

And the honeymoon’s over.

It lasted about an hour, just long enough to see a new stadium open, a new set of traffic problems develop, the guys from Fox make their first and likely last visit until 2006, and our mayor proudly waving while wearing a black velour T-shirt. When the first touchdown at Ford Field was scored on a reverse punt return, the crowd went wild. The home team had a lead! Football was being played in downtown Detroit!

And then, reality set in. It wasn’t football, it was the Lions. You can take the team out of the ugly but you can’t take the ugly out of the team. The good news is, it was much closer than the other losses this season. The bad news is, the other losses were blowouts.

Green Bay 37, Detroit 31. The season is still winless. The defense is still porous.

And we’re out of new stadiums.

History will show that the Lions opened their 2002 home campaign the same day that the Tigers, at next-door Comerica Park, ended theirs. As my radio colleague Ken Brown noted: Only in Detroit can you get comedy and tragedy in adjacent stadiums.

The Lions tried Sunday. On the field, they tried. In the control booths, they tried. They threw every feel-good face they could on the giant scoreboard. Ernie Harwell. Steve Yzerman. Unfortunately, football games last three hours. Eventually, you have to show the plays.

And what we saw in those plays were fumbles, interceptions and a return-the-favor mentality whenever the Packers gave them a break. The Lions closed late in the game with a terrific James Stewart tackle-breaking touchdown. And they even had a last-minute drive, led by rookie quarterback Joey Harrington, that had “Hollywood Ending” written all over it.

Unfortunately, the Lions moved south, not west. Harrington’s last pass was overthrown and intercepted.

New building, same old bricks.

“There’s no consolation in this league — yet, we continue to lay it on the line every Sunday,” coach Marty Mornhinweg said. “This football team has improved immensely.”

That may be. But it is a mark of the Lions’ sad history that a close loss almost feels like a victory. Until we convince the NFL of that, the standings aren’t going to change.

Last week, Mornhinweg tried to soften the poor start by saying, “If we win this one, we’ll be in second place in our division.”

So here’s the good news. They lost, and they’re still tied for third place in their division.

Of course, the division has only four teams.

No thanks to the Fox folks

Now, let us stress the positive where we can. The new stadium is beautiful. A monument to football. And one day, when they start playing it here, it’ll really be something.

No, seriously, this week, this season, Lions fans must do what they have been trained to do best: wait.

It will be easier to do in Ford Field, not only because of the crystal clear giant screens, the clean, well-lighted views (didn’t the Silverdome always feel like there was a blue film over your eyes?), but also because there is a sense of “there” there, you see other buildings as you drive in, you are actually in a city, not a highway exit.

The concourses are wide, the roof does not look like a melting marshmallow, and even the elevator operators are nicer. One of them Sunday, while encouraging more people to come in, said, “We got plenty of room in here. This ain’t Pontiac.”

No, it isn’t.

But these are the Lions. They played hard, no doubt about that. They didn’t quit, no doubt about that. Then again, there will never be a week when they’ll have more motivation to win than they had Sunday — a new stadium, a raucous crowd and a Green Bay team missing its best running back.

They still came up short.

Once again, the Lions’ defense couldn’t stop a runny nose. The Packers converted 12 of their 21 third downs, racked up 347 passing yards, and would have had more than their 37 points had Brett Favre not been so flippant with a few throws and the Packers not so butterfingers with their fumbles.

The Lions have now given up 49 points, 31 points and 37 points.

The good news: The big shots from Fox did their hour-long pre-game from the new stadium.

The bad news: Terry Bradshaw screamed that if the Lions lost this one, they
“should fire the coach tomorrow!”

Thanks for coming, guys. Airport’s that way.

Cheers for the doughnut

How was Joey Harrington, you ask? In his first pro start, he played much like what he is, a rookie quarterback forced to learn on the run. He did some very nice things — his first touchdown pass was a masterful display of timing — and he almost threw one to Mikhael Ricks in the closing seconds that would have made him a quick legend. He didn’t panic under pressure, even though he got to sniff more of the new FieldTurf than he cared to.

“I’m a little new in there,” he admitted. “I’m learning you don’t get as many chances as you do in college, so you got to take advantage of every one.

“But the big thing I learned today was the character of these players. In that fourth quarter, every set of eyes was up, every chin was up. We all believed we were going to march down the field and score.”

Wow. This new building stuff really works.

Well, better to be 0-3 and optimistic than 0-3 and depressed. By the way, can I say this about the Lions’ mascot — who now comes out of a cage before the team takes the field? Rule No. 1: It is not good when the mascot looks like he’d lose a fight to Winnie the Pooh.

Having said that, the good news is the Lions can get better, but the new stadium doesn’t have to. We have a wonderful place to see football, although I do worry about some of the technology.

In between quarters, on the giant scoreboard, they put up a race between three fast-food cartoon characters. As a result, one of the biggest cheers of the day came for a chocolate-covered doughnut.

Hey. You take what you can get. At least the doughnut wasn’t intercepted.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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