IT’S NO JOKE ANYMORE: LIONSCAN’T WIN WITH FONTES AS COACH

William Clay Ford, the man who owns the Lions, doesn’t have a coaching problem, he has a credibility problem.

It’s just hard to tell the difference.

If Wayne Fontes remains his coach, who will take his team seriously anymore? Not Detroit fans. The Lions can go 16-0 next season and fans will still expect them to lose in the first round of the playoffs. That’s what happens after three early exits in a row. The playoffs are poison to this team. It is a pattern now.

And it is the pattern that suggests Wayne Fontes should no longer be the coach — not the lopsided 58-37 defeat on Saturday.

Although that was pretty embarrassing.

Now. Let me say a few things here. No. 1, I don’t like using this space to hire and fire people. You wouldn’t want it done to you. I wouldn’t want it done to me. It’s too easy — especially in this age of “It’s not my fault, it’s somebody else’s” — to point a finger at an easy target and say “Kill!” And who’s easier than the coach? We did it once with Monte Clark, and then Darryl Rogers. Obviously, it is not always the answer.

No. 2, an awful lot of us media types have played pogo stick with this team this season, jumping off during the first three losses, jumping back after the seven wins, now jumping off again after the ram job by the Eagles.

No one likes to be a hypocrite. But the truth is, it’s almost impossible not to be with this team. Here are your options:

1) Always believe the Lions are going to lose, in which case you get branded a cynic, a bad news junkie, Mr. Negative.

2) Always believe they are Super Bowl-bound. In which case, after Saturday, you look like a fool.

See the problem? This team drives you crazy.

And the owner must do something.

The coach set the tone

When the Eagles came out Saturday, they had a very specific plan. They knew the Lions’ favorite pass patterns, and had someone underneath Herman Moore all day, effectively shutting down his trademark curl over the middle. They also pressured Scott Mitchell, then backed off, shifting the defense constantly. Clearly they studied films that showed when Mitchell is even thinking about pressure, he is not as effective a quarterback.

That is good coaching. Afterward, the Eagles players all said, “We had a great game plan.”

I’m not suggesting Fontes had no plan — nor am I suggesting his plan called for Mitchell to throw four interceptions. But when I spoke with Moore on Sunday, as the Lions cleaned out their lockers, I asked him if they’d prepared anything different for the Eagles’ highly aggressive defense.

“No,” he said. “We did what we always do.”

And the attitude when they fell behind?

“I don’t understand it. Even when it was only 10-7, we were walking around in shock. Everyone’s eyes were this big.”

That’s disturbing. So is the idea that winning seven in a row somehow made them cocky.

Cocky? The Lions? Their seven wins came over teams that failed to make the playoffs! We all knew this. Wayne Fontes should have been pointing that out, every day. He should have been saying, “We haven’t done anything. If we hadn’t lost to weak teams at the start of the season, we’d be hosting the Eagles, instead of going to them!”

You know what impressed me the most about Ray Rhodes, the Philadelphia coach? When Saturday’s game was winding down, and his team had scored more points than the Harlem Globetrotters, he still didn’t smile. He set a tone.
“We’re not done yet. We have more games to win.”

That’s called attitude. And experience. No track record

The thing about Rhodes, and Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, is that they have been to the mountaintop. They have gone with teams to the Super Bowl, they know what’s involved. One problem with Fontes — although it is not his fault
— is that he came out of losing programs. Tampa Bay is not much of a training ground for winners. And being an assistant to Darryl Rogers is kind of like being an assistant to Captain Kangaroo.

Fontes has done a lot in his years here. He took this team from terrible to good. But that seems to be his limit. Perhaps, having never been with a championship team, he is feeling his way in the dark every postseason. It certainly looks that way.

Unfortunately, time is up. This is as good an assembly of offensive talent as the Lions have ever had. And there are a few stellar players on defense — Henry Thomas, Mike Johnson. The time is ripe to get this team to the big dance before age and free agency tear it apart. The window is maybe two years. (And please, don’t talk about keeping Fontes but firing a few assistants; how many times does he get to do that?)

Taking over the Lions would be a plum job for any coach with a championship experience, because the players are ready to win, and they don’t need an overhaul, just a tweak. If Rhodes could do what he’s done with Philly in one year — and that team doesn’t have half the talent Detroit does — then imagine what could be done here.

In the end, as always, it’s up to Ford. He’ll have to spend big dollars to lure a winner, and I don’t know if he’ll ever do that. He has picked some terrible candidates in the past.

But his alternative is obvious. If he comes back next year with the Big Buck as coach, he can count on one sound, whether the Lions win or lose:

Laughter.

Hear Mitch Albom’s new radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 4-6 p.m. today on WJR-AM (760). Guest: author Stephen King.

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