FIRE IN THEIR EYES

You know things are bad when your fans start chanting for the team president to be fired – and it’s the middle of the third quarter.

“FIRE MIL-LEN!” they roared at Ford Field. “FIRE MIL-LEN!”

Of course, this was after they’d chanted “JO-EY! JO-EY!” in response to the poor play of quarterback Jeff Garcia. (We don’t know what Joey Harrington said back, but we probably couldn’t print it.)

So the mood was ugly Sunday afternoon, which, come to think of it, matched the football. A fan was tackled by security for running through the crowd with his anti-Matt Millen sign. Both the offense and defense were roundly booed. And while you felt bad for the Lions who blocked and tackled and sweated through this thing – before losing, typically, on a badly thrown interception – the fact is, nobody cares anymore.

Although this was officially the first game under interim coach Dick Jauron, in truth it was merely the start of the Lions’ second exhibition season: meaningless games, everybody auditioning.

That’s what you get when, with five weeks left, you fire your head coach, bench your young quarterback, scratch your high draft pick receiver, and can’t use your star running back.

No Harrington. No Charles Rogers. No Kevin Jones. No Steve Mariucci. It was like coming out to see the understudies in a high school play – only a high school play is more dramatic.

And the crowd is nicer.

“That’s the fans’ prerogative to express themselves,” Jauron said, when asked about the various jeers, chants and boos that marked the 21-16 defeat to Minnesota, which dropped the Lions to 4-8. “They have to know that we’re every bit as disappointed as they are, maybe more so.

“It’s us down there not winning the game.”

Poor Jauron. He seems like a steady, intelligent, observant man. You want to take him in the corner, lean in close, and say, “I’ll create a distraction. You run.”

Where are the cornerbacks?

Instead, Jauron is stuck with the same mess that hung around Mariucci’s neck like an albatross. His players are out of rhythm, out of confidence, and soon to be out of games. His quarterback situation is a mess, with Garcia redefining the phrase “baby-steps” Sunday, going halfway through the third quarter and throwing 25 passes before completing one for more than 10 yards.

He was jeered as badly as Harrington ever was – especially when he underthrew open receivers or settled for the Lions Blue Plate Special – a three-yard pass that is short of a first down.

Garcia, trying as hard as he can and enduring unfair scrutiny, finished 17-for-35 with no touchdowns, one game-killing interception and a passer rating so low it shouldn’t be printed in a family newspaper.

And he wasn’t the biggest problem.

“Did you hear the fans chanting ‘Joey! Joey!’ ” he was asked.

“Of course,” he said. “And when Joey’s in there, they’re yelling for somebody else.”

Exactly. The fans can’t make up their minds, because, when it comes to disappointment, this team offers so many options.

Take the Vikings’ first offensive play. Quarterback Brad Johnson drops back and heaves it down the sideline – and Koren Robinson torches R.W. McQuarters, makes the catch two steps ahead him, and finishes an 80-yard reception in the end zone for a touchdown.

The first play?

This, by the way, from the cornerback position, the same place where Dré (“It’s All Joey’s Fault”) Bly plays. And, as if not to be outdone, Bly got burned by Robinson on the first play of the second quarter, a 45-yard bomb that set up the Vikings’ second touchdown. So maybe it wasn’t all Harrington after all?

“We talked …. about teams not having fast starts against us,” Jauron said.

Yes. But talk is cheap.

Then again, at least Bly was playing. Which is more than can be said of wide receiver Charles Rogers, who was healthy and still scratched. Jauron’s explanation was that the Lions needed his roster spot for a special-teams player. I’m not kidding. And when asked what Rogers has to do to actually, you know, be activated for a game, Jauron said, “Perform better in practice.”

Are you following this? The No. 2 pick in the draft three years ago now can’t even practice well enough to displace a special-teams player?

And you wonder why they’re yelling for Millen’s head?

On any given Sunday

Which brings us back to the opening scene, the ugly chants of “FIRE MIL-LEN!” They were partly incited by a young man wearing a gray sweatshirt and blue jeans, who waved a small sign that appeared to be drawn onto a paper bag. He ran through the crowd, eluding security, cutting through aisles, waving it some more. And, of course, whenever something like this happens, everyone stands and points and then they cheer even louder and so the fool continues his behavior. And eventually, he covered half the stadium before getting tackled by a man with a walkie-talkie sticking out of his rear belt.

And the crowd booed some more.

It’s a pathetic situation. At times Sunday, you felt as if you were watching a game in a local gym or at some Brazilian soccer field. It was rowdy and mean and boring. The Lions, in case we forgot, are an NFL franchise. Yet they sure don’t look like it. This season, which started with such hope, has degenerated into comic and tragic performances. Teammates publicly pointing fingers. Quarterbacks shuffling back and forth. Talented players underperforming. Coaches fired. Radio stations and newspapers demanding that Millen be canned.

It’s as if Sundays in Detroit are not part of a season, but part of a punishment. Honestly, does anyone enjoy football in this town anymore? Or is it like getting stuck with a weekly meal with the in-laws; you can’t change it, so you might as well complain about it?

After the game, I approached Roy Williams, who was supposed to catch that final pass of the game but instead wasn’t on the same page as his quarterback and saw it intercepted. Funny, you recall, this was the same explanation given in the second week of the season when he couldn’t coordinate with Harrington on a pass in the Chicago end zone and a possible touchdown was instead intercepted and the mudslide of failure began.

“What has this week been like?” I asked. “With all you’ve had to deal with – a fired coach, a new head coach, a new starting quarterback? What’s it been like?”

“Nothing,” he said. “It’s the same. You can’t change nothing with five weeks left.”

Great. We can hardly wait for the next one.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. He will sign “The Five People You Meet In Heaven” at 7 p.m. Thursday at Barnes & Noble in Royal Oak and at noon Dec. 14 at Borders Express in the Renaissance Center in Detroit.

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