CHICAGO 23, DETROIT 20BEAR HUMBUG!NO PLAYOFFS, MORE HUMILIATION FOR LIONS

IT’S Christmas, you’ve seen “It’s A Wonderful Life” a million times, so you know the concept: Jimmy Stewart keeps trying to get out of his rut, but in the end, winds up back in the same old place.

Who knew that movie was really about our football team?

Bah, humbug. The Lions keep telling us they are not the same old Lions. Then, in the most important games of the year, they go out and play like …the same old Lions. Oh, sure, Sunday’s loss took some extra effort. There are blown games, there are blown seasons and there are works of art.

As collapses go, Sunday’s was magnificent. You have to step back and admire this baby. When all you have to do to make the playoffs is beat a terrible team at home, and even with that, you still have to throw an interception for a touchdown, you have to fumble, you have to draw an illegal motion penalty on fourth down, you have to fail to reach the end zone from the 10, you have to give up a 54-yard field goal — and you have to do all that in the final seven minutes of the game — well, let’s face it, folks, not every franchise in the NFL can pull that off.

Detroit, like Rudolph, is embarrassingly unique.

“Right now we’re in shock,” said linebacker Allen Aldridge, after the Lions bowed out of the 2000 season in a last-second, 23-20 loss to the lowly Bears.
“We’re walking around the locker room like, ‘What happened? What happened?’ “

Welcome to the fans’ world, Allen. Unwrap your present. It’s a box of air. Another season ended by the wind of humiliation. They really lost? The un-losable game? With all the mathematical ways the Lions could get into the playoffs, they still found the way to stay out of it?

“What happened?” you ask. How could Detroit blow such a hand-delivered opportunity?

You really want the answer?

How much eggnog you got?

A series of blunders

The short-term answer, meaning Sunday, is things like: 1) blocking, which the Lions apparently forgot how to do, and 2) durability, which Batch — ousted again with the rib injury — doesn’t have, and 3) protection, which the offensive line is simply not capable of delivering, and 4) mistakes, which the Lions had plenty of.

Mistakes like center Mike Compton jumping too soon, drawing a penalty when the Lions were in a fourth down late in the game. Mistakes like Herman Moore dropping a should-have-been touchdown. Mistakes like backup quarterback Stony Case running with the ball in the final minute instead of smartly going down; he wound up fumbling the game away.

It’s the defense, celebrated all year for controlling the run, allowing Chicago — of all teams — to rip off long drives. It’s that same defense, on what should have been Chicago’s final play of regulation, playing so loose on the Bears receivers that Cade McNown was able to hit James Allen for a 10-yard gain, a first down and the winning field-goal attempt.

It’s a bunch of little things adding up to a big loss. A terrible loss. Never mind that we all knew the Lions weren’t going far in the playoffs — with their offense, maybe no further than the opening kick. Never mind that if they couldn’t put away a pathetic group like the Bears, they had no chance against a good team next weekend. Never mind. At least they would have been in it. Gary Moeller would have gotten some precious coaching experience. The young guys could say they know what it’s like to make the playoffs.

And at least, for one week, fans in Detroit would have been able to say to fans in other cities, “Our team is playing, and yours isn’t.”

Instead, this morning, there is no significant difference between the Lions and, say, the Cincinnati Bengals or the Cleveland Browns. All three have nothing to do but put their kids’ new bicycles together.

“Is this just the worst feeling?” someone asked Lions offensive lineman Tony Semple after the game.

“No it’s not the worst feeling,” he said. “It’s the same feeling as last year when we lost.”

That’s the point, Tony.

A hapless franchise

For if Sunday’s defeat leaves the Lions faithful bewildered, it is hardly a new conclusion. The fact is, this franchise has been wandering in a dizzy circle ever since Barry Sanders walked out. Remember? That was the first “What happened?” that no one could figure. Then came this year. Think about it:

Bobby Ross, the coach, talks about never giving up, never quitting — and then he quits mid-season to be with his grandchildren. What happened?

Charlie Batch is given a big contract, he’s hailed as the Lions’ future, but instead of becoming the big-time quarterback everyone predicted, he gets brittle and mistake-prone and isn’t even playing when the season ends. What happened?

Herman Moore, who used to be a 1,000-yard, 100-catch-a-season receiver, now barely gets his uniform dirty and drops passes he used to catch. What happened?

The Lions, who never could win away from home, go to the Meadowlands twice and beat the Giants and Jets, go to Tampa and beat the Buccaneers, go to New Orleans and beat the Saints — then can’t win a simple game at the Silverdome against the Bears? What happened?

What happened is the weight of this franchise. The mistakes it has made over the years, in personnel, in the front office, in coaching choices, in drafting
— in how the dang team is run! — have combined to create an atmosphere of mediocrity that almost always wins in the end, no matter how much players of the moment try to rail against it.

Bobby Ross was 5-4 with this group, with a few big victories and a few bigger losses. Gary Moeller — for all the noise made over his ascension — was 4-3, with a few big victories and a few bigger losses. What exactly is the difference?

Scott Mitchell was brought in with a ton of fanfare, handed a huge money deal, then became unreliable. Charlie Batch heard great fanfare, got a big-money deal, but has yet to play in a playoff game. What exactly is the difference?

One year the offense gets better, but the defense sinks. Then the defense improves, but the offense is mud. And in the end, the only thing that seems to remain the same is, well, the end.

“I know the fans here,” said wide receiver Johnnie Morton, “and even just to get beyond the first round of the playoffs would be such a gift. Instead . .
.”

Instead, no playoffs at all. Break it down to the fumble, the interception return, the injuries, the cough-and-choke offense. When the final reel rolls, Lions fans, like Jimmy Stewart, are still back on that snow-covered bridge, waiting for Clarence the football angel to tell us why we shouldn’t jump.

Bah, humbug.

So …how’s the hockey team doing?

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

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