IF ONLY LIMPING LIONS COULD PLAY OVER THERE

Let me get this straight. The starting quarterback leaves, and the backup has a good day. The starting running back is injured, and the backups have a coming out party. The starting kick returner is gone, and the backup has huge numbers.

Hmm. If we can just get the starting receivers, cornerbacks and defensive linemen out of there, this team might win a few games.

Just kidding. Sort of. After all, you might think by reading the first paragraph that the Lions tasted victory Sunday. They did not. They rarely do. They have lost six in a row. Because of that, we take highlights where we can get them.

And Sunday’s loss to the NFC South Division-leading Tampa Bay Buccaneers was still, despite the final score, as entertaining a game as the Lions have played all year, with moxie and flash and some unexpectedly good moments.

Along with a bunch of bad plays.

And a bunch of blown third downs.

And some dumb penalties.

And some missed interceptions.

And a field goal that fell short.

And more blown third downs.

Hey. It’s the Lions.

“The effort was so high,” lamented coach Marty Mornhinweg, after the 23-20 defeat. “We did just about everything we planned on doing in this game.”

Really? That’s amazing. Because halfway through the first quarter, Joey Harrington left the field with his heart racing at 200 beats per minute, and they slapped him on an EKG machine and loaded him in an ambulance and raced him to the hospital. If that was in the game plan, these guys are really thorough.

Back at the helm

Suddenly, Joey was having his heartbeat checked at Henry Ford Hospital — he should be fine, but he was done for the day — and Mike McMahon was out there slinging it. McMahon hasn’t really played quarterback in three months, yet he moved the team 79 yards on his first drive, with a zip over the middle to Bill Schroeder for a touchdown.

“It was fun,” McMahon said. He later ran for a score and threw a couple of big gainers. One was to Aveion Cason for 37 yards.

Which brings us to the running backs.

The starter, James Stewart, was out. Cason had some big bursts in his place. But the surprise of the day was a guy named Rafael (Rafael?) Cooper. Come on, now. If you knew this guy was on the Lions, raise your hand now. Hello? Anyone? . . .

Cooper, who attended Chadsey High in Detroit, not only had the niftiest footwork of the afternoon — on consecutive gains of 16 and 18 yards, sweet-stepping his way through the Tampa Bay defense — but he had the best answer in the postgame interviews.

Reporter: “When was the last time you carried this much of a rushing load?”

Cooper: “Amsterdam.”

Amsterdam?

It’s not every day you get Holland into an NFL story. But Cooper, 27, had played there this spring, in NFL Europe, before and after stints with — and I hope I’m getting this right — Tennessee, Green Bay, the XFL, the IFL, Tennessee again, Green Bay again, University of Minnesota, University of Louisville, and, for all we know, the UN Arms Inspection team.

“I knew Tampa had a tough defense,” Cooper said, after gaining 50 yards on just eight carries, “but when I was in Europe, the Rhine team had a great defense, and I had a good game against them. So I kept looking at the Tampa defense and thinking they were the Rhine defense.”

I promise you, that’s the last time you hear that sentence.

A missed opportunity

Wait. A nod to another backup, Eddie Drummond, who is getting his chance because of the season-ending injury to Desmond Howard. Drummond was electrifying on kickoff returns Sunday, racking up nearly 200 yards, including a 91-yard beauty that helped knot the game 20-20 in the fourth quarter.

“We said going in, we were going to need big plays from special teams, and Eddie did that,” Mornhinweg said.

Unfortunately, a few big plays don’t win games for the Lions, but they do lose them. A dropped interception. Two third-down defensive lapses. A blown pass from McMahon to Germane Crowell. A missed 57-yard field-goal attempt.

It all adds up. What it adds up to is 3-11, the second-worst record in pro football.

What’s funny is, had the Lions won — and they had chances — it might have secured Mornhinweg’s job for another season. An upset of perhaps the best team in the NFC might have given the Ford family justification in staying the course.

“See,” they could have said, “when Marty gets it together, we’re as good as anyone.”

Instead, here we are: Harrington’s ticker is in question, Stewart is aching, Az-Zahir Hakim, Tony Semple and Howard are out for the year, and the injury list is longer than the Christmas card list.

“We are not a bad team,” Cooper insisted.

On the other hand, Amsterdam is looking pretty good right now.

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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