WASHINGTON — They left the field with the air let out of them, like dead balloons the janitor sweeps away after a New Year’s party. The kick had missed, the scoreboard was still three points in the red. Chris Spielman lumbered toward the locker room, hearing the Redskins fans cheer their fortunate victory. Suddenly, out of nowhere, talking to nobody, Spielman screamed, “BLEEP THAT!”
Bleep that. Were these the old Lions, I might say, “Nice job.” I might say good improvement, guys, the signs are promising, take this close, 13-10 loss and build on it.
But these are not the old Lions. This is not a losing team that gets lucky when it wins.
This is a team that can take on the Super Bowl champions and battle them to a bloody draw, stuffing their MVP quarterback and picking off his passes. And a team that can do that — a team that can come within a touchdown of beating the Skins in their own private den of sin, this rocking, haunting RFK Stadium
— a team that can do that does not need sympathetic petting.
It needs to hear the truth.
So here goes: Sanders, Peete need help
The Lions need help. On the offensive line. It doesn’t matter anymore just how they lost those two promising players, Eric Andolsek and Mike Utley, one to death, the other to paralysis. What matters now is that the players in their places are not getting the job done. I say this with hesitation, because they are nice guys. But this is not about personality. This is about opening holes and protecting the quarterback.
This is about being able to get more than 34 yards from the best running back in football, Barry Sanders. This is about Rodney Peete, escaping another injury list Sunday only through sheer guts and last-second releases.
“Is this the most you’ve ever been hit as a pro, these last three weeks?” Peete was asked, after the defeat dropped the Lions to 1-2.
“Yeah,” he said, finally, “to tell you the truth, it is. It’s frustrating. I’m waiting for something (changes) to happen, too.
“I can’t complain about it. I just have to find a way to get rid of the ball quicker, I guess. But it is frustrating to watch a guy like Mark Rypien out there with all day to throw.”
Bleep that. Count the missed chances
The Lions should have won this game. They should have won it several times. I say that both as compliment and criticism. Remember, this is a Redskins team that clobbered the Lions twice last season and made it look as easy as letting water out of the tub. But now the Lions come in here and brawl and knock helmets and steal passes and play terrific defense and somehow they have the ball with 4:37 to go, and the win is in their hands. The Washington fans are holding their breath. All the Lions have to do is execute the kill.
But it’s not enough.
Because they didn’t.
“Oh, man, this was frustrating,” tackle Lomas Brown said afterward. “These guys, the Redskins, something about playing here. . . .”
I know exactly what he means. I have seen it before. The Lions and the Redskins are like the Pistons and the Celtics in the old days, before the Pistons learned how to win. The Skins always seem to be waiting at the end of the tunnel, the guardians of glory, and while the Lions are pounding them harder now, they still have not dislodged them. They still have not gotten over what Isiah Thomas always called “the hump.” They still have not slain their dragon.
“When you talk about getting to the next level, what you mean is capitalizing on moments like today,” nose tackle Jerry Ball said in a nice piece of postgame philosophy. “We had our chances to make the plays. You want to be great, you have to make those plays. Simple as that.”
He’s right. If Sunday were a novel, it would be “Paradise Lost” — lost on miscues and dropped passes and dumb penalties and bad blocking.
1) SECOND QUARTER: A perfect pass to Reggie Barrett at the goal line goes right through his hands, like a pinball through dead flippers. Instead of a touchdown, the Lions settle for a field goal.
2) SECOND QUARTER: A second-and-one play is stuffed when guard Shawn Bouwens blows a block and Sanders is captured for negative yardage. Instead of a first down closer in, the Lions end up trying a long field goal, which misses.
3) FOURTH QUARTER: Peete completes a pass to Willie Green, but Bouwens is called for holding. Instead of a first down near midfield, it’s second-and-20 deep in Lions territory. The possession ends with Peete, under pressure from the bad field position, throwing an interception.
4) FOURTH QUARTER: With time running out and a first down on the Skins’ 32, the Lions go flat, they pick up nothing on three straight plays, and rookie Jason Hanson must try to tie the game with a 49-yard kick.
5) FOURTH QUARTER: Hanson misses badly.
Bad, huh? And on top of all this, here was a day that also saw Rypien intercepted three times, sacked once, pressured at least 10 times, and his teammates were guilty of numerous penalties at bad moments. That doesn’t happen to the Redskins. And yet, look at the results.
6) FOURTH QUARTER: Redskins win.
“A win,” sighed Washington coach Joe Gibbs, “is the only way to describe today.”
As I said, bleep that.
Offensive line needs new man
Now, granted, the Lions may be the best 1-2 team in football. But so what? That’s not going to get them into the playoffs. You don’t get to plead your case at the door. There’s no judge who says you are worthy, go ahead anyhow.
Two losses are two losses. And neither should have happened. And if the Lions are serious about winning now, then now is the time for some kind of action — particularly with the offensive line. A new player would make most sense. If Wayne Fontes’ brain trust wants to be patient, if they say, “It just takes time for an offensive line to jell,” well, God bless them, I hope they’re right. To me, those seem like some awfully big dice to roll, considering how precious Sanders’ and Peete’s health are to this team. I don’t see Bouwens getting this job done. I’m not sure Ken Dallafior can do it for the whole game. The jury is out on Scott Conover.
And the Lions are left with another bad taste in their mouths. This was a wonderful game, a close game, a dirty, gut- thumping, down-to-the-wire game that showed just how much the Lions have improved, not only with talent, but with confidence. It was so good, that in the old days, we might have been satisfied with the effort.
These are not the old days.
That’s the good news — and the bad.