IT WASN’T THE NOISE; IT WAS THE SILENCE

They were calling for his head and calling for his job, but halfway through Sunday’s game, Matt Millen said, “I’m not bothered by that stuff.” He pointed to the field. “I’m bothered by this stuff.”

What he meant was how his team was playing, and in that moment, the beleaguered president was on the same page as his critics. There were plenty of signs at Ford Field, but I must have missed the one that said “Mail It In.” The Lions handed this game to the Bengals as if it were government cheese.

Is there any surprise in that? In the end, for all the hype – and don’t be fooled by a few TV images strung together – Sunday wasn’t that angry. It wasn’t that loud. It wasn’t anything except terribly familiar. Despite our media’s best attempts to drum up a ’60s-style football revolution, this was just another losing game in another losing season on another cold Detroit afternoon.

And what stood out the most was what stood out the least.

The owner, William Clay Ford, was in the building but nowhere to be found. Millen hadn’t spoken all week. Even the Lions’ starters were not introduced by name Sunday. Instead, they raced out quickly, scattering to the sidelines like kids running from the cops.

Honestly, if they could have played without numbers, they would have.

How bad was it? Chad Johnson, the Cincinnati receiver famous for his touchdown celebrations, simply handed the ball to the ref after his first-quarter score. Why waste your good stuff in practice?

And that’s all this was for the Bengals: practice. Target practice. They shot at the end zone and hit it five times before nodding off from boredom, 41-17. The Lions, meanwhile, played like office workers on Christmas Eve: in the building, but no work being done.

And while Millen, during a brief chat at halftime, expressed his frustration at the effort -“I don’t like watching this,” he said – he was left only to return to his booth and his signature posture, elbow on table, jaw in palm, face as sunk as a warm marshmallow.

If the Bengals finally can win …

Here’s the thing: When you don’t define yourself, others will do it for you. With a coach in limbo, with a president under siege, with an owner who refuses to publicly take responsibility for this mangled mess – when was the last time you heard Mr. Ford act as if this team mattered? – the Lions will continue to be defined by others: the media, the fans.

Which means anger and cynicism. And not just from the outside.

“They wanted us to lose,” wide receiver Roy Williams said of the booing fans, some of whom wore orange in protest. “We handled it. We didn’t pay attention.”

“Wait,” I said. “They wanted you to lose?”

“Yeah, in my opinion, any time anybody does that, they want to see you fail. … They’re hoping for us to lose to get what they want – as far as management, as far as the players they want out of here.”

He shrugged.

“I think their plan went well.”

Nothing I write could be more cynical than that.

Sunday didn’t help. It was the football equivalent of playing while napping. Who were these guys? Somebody named LeVar Woods was the middle linebacker. No offense, but I couldn’t tell Woods from the trees.

But then, with blown tackles and receptions turned into interceptions, who would want to? The whole day felt so tired and old. We could point out that Cincinnati was once, like Detroit, a lowly franchise, and is now a Super Bowl contender. Or that Marvin Lewis, the Bengals’ coach, wasn’t even interviewed by Millen – who chose Marty Mornhinweg instead.

But you know that. You want to know when you’ve seen everything?

Joey Harrington came off the bench in the fourth quarter …

And the crowd cheered!

The real end of the season

By the way, that may well have been Harrington’s last home game as a Lion, and if so, fans should at least acknowledge the classy way with which he handled himself. He may not have played great, but he never pointed fingers and he never hid.

The Lions’ front office should follow his lead – especially Millen and Ford. For all the angry noise, Lions fans just want to know somebody cares. They want to see passion – or disgust. Of all the banners unfurled on Sunday, the saddest was the one that read:

Ownership since 1963: 1 playoff win …

Mr. Ford: Who’s the real problem?

It’s sad because it never gets answered.

There goes another year. The Lions have two games left, one on Christmas Eve and one on New Year’s Day. Which means, at least for the rest of this season, fans will have better things to do than watch this team.

Then again, don’t they always?

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