FEET TELL THE UGLY TALE OF LIONS’ LATEST DEFEAT

TAMPA, Fla. — Let’s talk about feet. Rodney’s feet. Barry’s feet. Eddie’s feet. They seemed to be a theme in the Lions’ 23-20 loss to Tampa Sunday night, a game played before a nationwide cable TV audience that must have wondered if this was what Ted Turner paid all that money for.

Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get to the part about the Lions’ suddenly bleaker future, and how they said they would have to be 4-0 or 3-1 after the first four games to have a chance at the playoffs. And how now, after three games, they are 1-2.

But first, let me get back to this feet thing. I’ll be nice. I’ll start with the good part. Rodney Peete. Or is it Rodney Feet? He was all over the place Sunday night, Rodney left, Rodney right, Rodney up the middle. He gained 97 yards rushing — on eight carries — which is pretty darn good for a running back, let alone a quarterback.

Rushin’ Rodney was a real weapon. He eluded tacklers, he gulped up yardage, he even had a touchdown. Sometimes, he ran so much, when he got back to the huddle he called the play like this: “Red right . . . (huff-huff) . . . X slot
. . . (puff-puff) . . . on . . . (wheeze) . . . three. . . .”

Rodney’s shoes might have been bronzed — had the Lions won the game. Unfortunately, on their final drive, trailing by three, Rodney tried to run and got nailed. And the next play, he overthrew his receiver and the next play he underthrew his receiver. And all that footwork was for naught. He trudged off the field next to his running back, James Wilder.

James Wilder?

Which brings us the feet of Barry Sanders.

Don’t let Sanders just fade away

I have to ask a question here. Wasn’t Sanders the rookie of the year last season? Wasn’t he a whisker from the rushing title?

So what’s the deal here? In the first game of the season, Sanders barely got the ball, and in the second game he got it but in funny bunches, and Sunday, most of the time he got it — especially in crucial situations — the Tampa defense was all over him before he left the backfield. These were some of his attempts: minus-five, minus-one, minus-three, minus-one. The Lions tried some screen passes, which seemed to work, but, inexplicably, they stopped.

And then, in the fourth quarter, with 10:08 left and the Lions scurrying to win this thing, Sanders was taken out of the game — as Wayne Fontes explained
— for the better blocking of Wilder. “Blocking? Was that it?” Peete would say afterward. “I thought Barry was hurt.”

And that’s the quarterback talking.

Now, I admit I am no match for the expert football minds of the Lions’ coaches. But it seems to me, if your offense can’t find a way to make good use of Barry Sanders, then there’s something wrong with your offense. I know the opposing teams are keying on him. But that happens to all good rushers. You devise a way to spring him. You draw it into your plans. You don’t just surrender him to the bench.

“Were you disappointed to be taken out in the fourth quarter?” Sanders was asked.

“It’s the coaches’ decisions,” he said. “I’ll do whatever they ask.”

Well, if he’s too nice to say it, I will. I don’t care if it’s the run ‘n’ shoot or stumble ‘n’ flop. To misuse Sanders this way is a shame. In the football world, it’s almost criminal. The guy didn’t come to the NFL to block. And if the architects of the run ‘n’ shoot want to keep insisting that the multi-pass, multi-receiver design is the only way to go, well, to be blunt, look at the standings.

Sanders’ feet are too damn good to be frustrated the way they have been in these first three games.

And while we’re talking about feet. . . .

Any way you look at it, defeat stinks

Let’s talk about another pair, those belonging to Eddie Murray. While I like Eddie a lot, and think he’s a great field- goal guy, this kickoff stuff is getting embarrassing. He does not put it in the end zone. Sometimes, he doesn’t get close.

Sunday night, in the fourth quarter, after the Lions’ most spirited touchdown drive gave them a 20-16 lead, Murray looped a floater that came down on the Tampa 17-yard line — where John Harvey took it on the run and returned it to the 44. The Bucs were nearly at midfield before they even called a play. They went on to score the winning touchdown, and they can thank the Lions and Murray’s kick for the flying start.

I know Eddie may still be hurting from his hip injury. But perhaps Fontes might consider adding a guy whose only job is to boom it into the end zone.

After all, what’s 17 free yards worth to you?

Anyhow, all of these feet walk us back to the big picture: Suddenly, a year that began with talk of the playoffs is seeing Fontes giving his “This is a young team and we’ll get better, I promise” speech. Granted, the Lions were playing without two top defensive players, Chris Spielman and Bennie Blades. And let’s not forget Terry Taylor, who was erased by his own failed drug test. Considering all that, the defense did pretty well, up to that final drive, when, for the second time in three weeks, it made Vinny Testaverde look like Johnny Unitas.

But Spielman and Blades will be out for a few more weeks. And the teams down the road are not all Tampa Bay. I’m keeping my fingers crossed. But my fingers won’t do as much as the Lions’ feet.

If they ever get pointed in the right direction.

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