by | Oct 26, 1998 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Ididn’t think it was possible. But all the years of losing, embarrassment, and one step forward/two steps back, have finally gotten to the most even-keeled football player I have ever known: Barry Sanders.

“I just show up here to work,” Sanders sighed Sunday, after the Lions’ fifth loss in seven games, a penalty-plagued affair that left fans booing, coaches shaking their heads, and Sanders, the best running back in football, as close to a tirade as he will ever get.

“The guys they chose to put out there are my teammates. I don’t make the decisions on things like that. I’d love to have that control, that would be great. But I don’t. I just show up and play with the guys they put out there.

“But it doesn’t matter who you have out there if you’re going to make elementary mistakes like we did today…. We made errors today, God, you don’t see them in junior high or Pop Warner.”

He sighed. “I can’t explain it.”

Congratulations, Barry. You are officially a Lions fan.

The problem is, he is also the Lions’ best player. And when your best player is feeling this way, like he can’t do anything about it but just punch in and punch out, then there is something seriously wrong.

Sanders had every right to be ticked off. The Lions played a strong first half against the undefeated Vikings, went into halftime leading, 13-10, and then, to quote Barry, “took the second half off.”

How they could do this in front of a raucous, sellout crowd, in a game they had to win, is beyond me. But it happened Sunday, as it has many times before. Suddenly, the offense, which had outperformed the Vikings in the first 30 minutes, fizzled out like disco. Pick a category: first downs, passing yards, third-down conversions. Detroit went backwards in every one.

Meanwhile, the defense, which had done a nice job on the Vikings’ explosive attack in the first half, couldn’t find a shield in the second. It gave up 17 points in the third quarter — thanks partly to a 59-yard pass-interference penalty on Bryant Westbrook.

In fact, the only thing the Lions did as well in the second half as they did in the first was penalties. They finished with 14 yellow flags, seven in the first half, seven in the second.

So there’s some consistency here.

Batch runs into rookie troubles

There’s also this: Every time the Lions win one, they lose the next. Next Sunday marks the halfway point of the season, and the Lions’ longest winning streak so far is one game. They are already in “must-win” mode. By that I don’t mean they “must win” Sunday. I mean they “must win” November and December.

No wonder Barry is upset.

“I felt like I was very close to breaking something big,” Sanders said, after racking up 127 yards rushing and 51 receiving. “I felt if we had continued with the running game, good things would have happened.”

Unfortunately, the offense was sputtering with rookie quarterback Charlie Batch at the helm. Batch experienced what he was due to experience, a dead patch, a bad stretch, some ill-advised decisions, some busted plays. He began the second half with two sacks, and it pretty much went downhill from there.

The final indignity came when he whipped a pass to Herman Moore, only to see it stolen by Minnesota cornerback Jimmy Hitchcock and returned 79 yards for a touchdown. Batch tried to chase him — and ran smack into the massive arms of Vikings lineman John Randle, who wrapped him up gently and shook his head, as if to say, “Don’t bother, kid, this one’s history.”

So, too, is the mini-euphoria that existed after the Lions’ win over Green Bay. A lot was made of that prime-time performance. Fans should know better now. Beating the Packers is nice, but it doesn’t mean what it did two years ago. The Vikings are the best team in the Central Division, maybe in the NFC. They are 7-0 and haven’t scored fewer than 29 points in a game this year.

You want to measure yourself, you measure against purple now, not green.

None of which will make Detroit football watchers happy. Lions fans — as well as players like Sanders — have been here long enough to remember when the Vikings were mediocre, then good, then bad, then mediocre, and now, for the moment, great. The Vikes are doing it with a coach who was almost fired
(Dennis Green), a quarterback who was out of football (Randall Cunningham) and a receiver who was passed up by 20 teams in the draft, including the Lions
(Randy Moss).

Meanwhile, the Lions, with a new coach and quarterback, are 2-5. That is not a
“feel-good” number.

It might be over by Turkey Day

Nor is an upset Sanders a feel-good sign. Folks here live in fear of the day Sanders says, “I’ve had it.” And while it is Barry’s habit to downplay controversy and even to take back things that were said after a game, nevertheless, I have not heard him say “I just work here” before. It is a bad sign. It is a sign that at age 30, he may sense there is no land on this ship’s horizon.

“Minnesota looks like a really complete team to me,” he said. “Could we be a more complete team? I guess that’s one argument. But it doesn’t matter when you make errors like we did today.”

“How disappointing is this?” a reporter asked.

“How disappointing? I don’t know. We have what, 11 games left?”

He stopped and counted in his head. “No, nine games left. We have nine games left. I don’t know. Maybe by Thanksgiving, this one won’t be so disappointing.”

Then again, maybe by Thanksgiving, no one will be paying attention.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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