IT’S THE SAME OLD SONG FOR MITCHELL AND LIONS

When you take a few months off and then come back to work — as I do today — it’s comforting to know that certain things remain the same.

Barry Sanders giveth . . .

…and Scott Mitchell giveth away.

That old song was sung again Sunday afternoon at the Silverdome, where it was hot enough to faint, and, thanks to Mitchell, understandable if you did. Here was Sanders scoring three touchdowns, racking up 229 yards of brilliant offense, and leaving the highlight people scrambling for film.

And here was Mitchell handing the game over.

Not once, but twice.

I’m back to work.

Pass the Maalox.

Now, you have to admit, two interceptions in two consecutive pass plays is impressive, even for a Lions quarterback. But it wasn’t necessary. We got the point the first time. In fact, after that first time — a truly awful interception in which Mitchell, while being tackled by a Cincinnati defender, decided, “Hey, this might be a good time to throw across the field” — after that, we never expected a second chance. Neither did Mitchell. As Cincinnati’s Ashley Ambrose celebrated his interception, Mitchell lay face down in disbelief. And at the Silverdome, disbelief is not easy to come by.

But the Lions and Mitchell did get a second chance, after Cincinnati missed a winning field goal attempt at the end of regulation. The crowd roared.

“I knew we were gonna win the game after that!” receiver Johnnie Morton would say. “I just knew it!”

Hmm. Don’t take any stock tips from Johnnie.

For instead of victory, he and Mitchell were involved in an overtime play that will live in Lions infamy. After three straight handoffs to Sanders, in which he gained 27 yards, the Lions’ brain trust called for a pass. So, on third-and-three, Mitchell dropped back and threw in Morton’s direction.

Unfortunately, Morton was changing direction.

He went deep. The ball went short. Thus the pass was a wonderful completion — to the wrong-colored jersey, worn by Cincinnati’s Corey Sawyer, who raced down the sideline 53 yards for the winning touchdown.

After the game, coach Bobby Ross said, “We practice that play 200 times.”

Like that?

A terrible final play

Now, to be fair to Mitchell — which is not a popular thing in this town, considering the boos he heard Sunday — the final debacle was only partly his fault. On that play, a slant, Morton has to make a decision to stay in or go long, based on how the defender is playing him. If he’s playing tight, Morton is supposed to cut and go deep. If the defender is back, Morton is supposed to stay in for a sideline catch.

“So, based on the defense, you were sure Scott was going long with you?” I asked him in the locker room.

“Oh, definitely,” he said.

“Then why did he throw short?”

Morton shrugged. “You have to ask him.”

Thirty feet away, Mitchell was explaining it differently. “The defensive back just turned at the right moment,” he said, “it wasn’t a miscommunication.”

Well, it sure wasn’t the Everly Brothers singing harmony, if you know what I mean.

Besides, may I ask a few questions? Like, why call that play in the first place? It’s risky. It’s unnecessary. And if you’re going to go away from Sanders to throw — for three stinking yards, in overtime — why not go with one of the league’s best receivers, 6-foot-3 Herman Moore, instead of Morton, who was knocked so woozy earlier in the game, he only remembers part of it?

“We just blew it,” Ross said, “we just blew it.”

I don’t know if he was repeating himself, or giving one “we just blew it” for each of Mitchell’s interceptions. The sad thing is, Mitchell didn’t play badly outside of those picks. In fact, on the series before, he directed a wonderful scoring drive, completing three passes and running twice for 19 yards to help tie the game.

“I tried to do my best,” he sighed, “I just made two bad plays.”

Poor Scott. Every time you think his ship is coming in, it turns out to be the Titanic.

Fewer flags, fewer mistakes

Now, those of you screaming for rookie Charlie Batch to replace Mitchell, calm down. Remember that if Batch had thrown the same dumb interception, we’d be expected to understand it because “he’s young and inexperienced.” Who wants to go through that again?

I don’t want to crucify Mitchell. He does too good a job of that himself. It’s true, last week against Green Bay, his fourth-down fumble turned into a Packers TD. And this week, his bad decision turned into a Bengals TD. At some point, Scott has to stop scoring for the other team.

But at some point the Lions have to be smarter overall. They have to stop collecting yellow flags at critical moments. They have to play better special teams (they surrendered another return for a touchdown Sunday). And their defense has to make plays. On Sunday, cornerback Kevin Abrams was so bad, Ross removed him “for someone who could tackle.”

Hmm. Isn’t that a prerequisite for the job?

Well. Some things you get used to. Taxes. Snow. The Lions off to another sputtering start. They are 0-2 now, with a road game Sunday against Minnesota, one of the strongest teams in the league.

“I’m very disappointed,” Ross said.

Me, too. One day back at work, and I’m already writing an old story.

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

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