by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The room was full of shoulda-been heroes. Mel Gray, who took a kickoff and burst like a gazelle through the guts of the Tampa Bay defense, an out-of-your-seat touchdown that had teammates on hands and knees thanking God for his presence. Gray shoulda been the hero. But now he tucked in his shirt and pulled on his belt. “It would’ve been nice,” was all he would say.

Across the room sat Kevin Scott, the kid out of Stanford, second year, still coming on. He shoulda been a hero with two interceptions. Instead, he sat by his locker, his voice flat as slate. “I’d rather have no picks and win,” he said, “than two picks and lose.”

Limping past him went Rodney Peete, the quarterback. Peete, too, shoulda been a hero. He had more than 300 passing yards, no interceptions, threw a touchdown bomb that he didn’t even see, because a lineman smothered him after the release. Shoulda been his glory. Now he slipped on his jacket as if leaving a funeral. “Good teams,” Peete said, biting his lip, “find a way to win close games. We shoulda won.”

Shoulda. Shoulda. This season is one big shoulda. There are Lions fans now banging their coffee cups screaming, “Shoulda beat Chicago! Shoulda beat Washington! Shoulda beat Tampa Bay! Should be 4-0!”

To whom I say:

Will you please be quiet, please?

Because they didn’t. And they aren’t. And nobody, when this season is over, will give a crumb of stale bread as to how the Lions’ record got to what it is. There will be no judges granting playoff immunity. In sports, you are your record. The rest is just for talk shows.

The record is 1-3.

New Orleans is next.

This is really bad news. Too many blunders

“It was a very terrible loss,” said coach Wayne Fontes, after the 27-23 defeat to the Buccaneers that snapped a home-field winning streak stretching back two seasons. Very terrible? Well. In this case, it was fitting vocabulary. The Lions won this game, lost it, won it again, and lost it in the end.

True, if not for Gray’s return, and Scott’s interceptions, and Peete’s arm, they might never have been in this contest. But if not for Barry Sanders’ fumble into the arms of the Tampa Bay defense (which resulted in a Tampa Bay touchdown) or linebacker George Jamison’s taking a fake that left tight end Ron Hall wide open (which resulted in a Tampa Bay touchdown), if not for Peete’s bad decision in the closing seconds to throw short of the end zone with no time-outs and hope Brett Perriman could run it in himself (which did not result in a Detroit touchdown) — if not for all that, maybe the Lions wouldn’t need heroics.

But all that happened — in one afternoon, no less.

“We played a good game for three quarters and three-quarters of a quarter,” Chris Spielman groaned. “It’s very simple. We’re not finishing.”

Leave it to Spielman to punch the scab in the soft spot. They are not finishing. They are not closing the deal, not sealing the envelope, not shutting the door. They are playing well enough to win, then turning into spectators at their own funeral.

Already this season the Lions have watched Jim Harbaugh beat them on the last play of the game. They’ve watched Washington beat them when Jason Hanson missed a field goal in the closing two minutes. Now they watch Vinny Testaverde fake them out of their shorts with a beautiful call to his tight end. And suddenly, they are not in first place in the NFC Central. They are not in second. They are not in third. They are dead last. Behind Green Bay?

“We can’t go 1-4 into the break week,” Spielman said. “We have to fight like hell just to get to .500 now. A lot of people will be writing us off. .
. .”

He sighed. “It comes with the territory.” Too soon to give up

Now. No one here is writing them off. Teams come back from 1-3 starts, they make playoffs, even win championships. The painful part is, this is all too familiar. Wasn’t it yesterday the Lions played close, then died?

Back then, Spielman had said: “We don’t know how to win.” That is not the problem now. The 1992 Lions know how to win. They simply aren’t winning when it counts. Frankly, I don’t know which is worse.

I do know this: There are two major problems on this team, the offensive line and the defense in the fourth quarter. Both have been letting down. Although the line did a better job pass blocking for Peete, its primary responsibility is opening holes for Sanders, the best back in football. The line is failing. And Sanders can’t compensate. After four weeks he has 279 yards (70 a game), with a typical rush of 3.5 yards. Not bad. Nothing special.

And anytime Sanders is “nothing special” something is wrong.

As for the defense, I don’t know. The players can’t still be out of shape from lack of training camp, can they? But the fourth quarter comes, they loosen their belts. Why? I know Tampa Bay is improved. But the Bucs shouldn’t drive 80 yards on you in the final minutes in your building. Sorry.

“I’m disappointed and embarrassed,” Fontes said.

Um-hmmm. You’re also 1-3.

In the end, that’s all anyone will remember.


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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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