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

CHICAGO — Barry Sanders, maybe the best running back in the history of the game, was stuck in the corner with camera lights blinding his eyes. He looked down. He mumbled his answers. For every time he mentioned “pride,” he mentioned “disappointment.” For every time he said “honor,” he said
“frustration.” He sniffed between questions and pulled on his neck, as if coaxing the words up through his throat. He never smiled.

A few hours earlier, on a cold, rain-soaked Soldier Field, Sanders became the first back in history to exceed 1,000 yards in eight straight seasons. He also passed O. J. Simpson for eighth place on the all-time rushing list. This should have been a big day. A celebration of Barry’s remarkable talent.

Instead, what does he have to show for it? Nothing but numbers, numbers, numbers — and this, another Sunday when a Detroit football season washes down the sewer.

Everyone off the train. The 1996 campaign has officially derailed, a wreck of cars, smoke and mangled steel. Wayne Fontes’ crew will have to walk home now — the porous defense, the cornerbacks who can’t tackle or knock anything down, the offensive coordinators who can’t handle the same problems week after week, all of them. No more phony hot-air balloons, filled with Fontes speeches about “no quit in this football team.”

It no longer matters if the Lions quit on the season. The season quit on them.

Everybody off the train.

Think it’s bad now? It could get worse

“We are in a deep, deep, deep, deep hole,” Fontes said. Well, Wayne, it’s deep all right, but it’s not a hole, if you get my drift. This season is cooked and so, in all likelihood, are you. This was an embarrassing final note to the playoff- hope symphony, as bad as dropping the cymbals instead of crashing them. And while it is next to impossible for the Lions to win their last four games, it is entirely possible they could lose all four.

Scary thought, huh? Well, no scarier than Sunday’s frightful performance, in which the Lions went down, 31-14, to the Bears, who had broken 20 points only twice this season. Chicago tried to give this game back. They handed the Lions nine penalties, a five-yard punt, two lost fumbles, and the NFL’s most-sacked quarterback in history, Dave Krieg. The joke goes that Krieg makes Dom DeLuise look mobile.

The Lions failed to sack him once.

You name the mistake, the Lions made it. Terrible tackling. Bad play-calling. Interceptions. Forgetting Sanders. And the secondary? Well. What’s left to say about Curly, Moe and Larry?

Here was a play that summed it all up: the end of the first half, the Lions hoping for a field goal to tighten the 24-14 deficit. Scott Mitchell throws to Brett Perriman near midfield. Perriman is grabbed by a defender, and instead of going down and calling time out, he spins around and tosses a lateral that looks like something out of the Harlem Globetrotters, where the ball is filled with helium. It lands in the arms of a surprised, 310-pound Ray Roberts, the offensive lineman, who rumbled at Winnebago speed for a few yards, until he lateraled — illegally — to Johnnie Morton. Whistles blew. The refs took the remaining time off the clock as a penalty. And the Lions went off the field like a bunch of clowns. All that was missing were the red noses and the honking horns.

“We stunk the place up,” Perriman said.

Everybody off the train.

Wasting Barry is the greatest shame

This is the end of delusion. The Lions can tell themselves whatever they want now, week after week, until nobody is watching anymore, until nobody is even in the stadium. They can tell themselves they should have won this game or that game, they just missed this pass or that tackle. It’s all a big tarp pulled over the real problem: a lack of heart from certain players and total lack of direction from the coaching staff. Does anyone even notice that the flat-out awful secondary has been coached the last five seasons by Wayne Fontes’ brother, John, who was working in the World League and Arena Football before Wayne gave him the job?

Since then, the elder Fontes has fired two defensive coordinators, but his brother has stayed on, and the secondary has gotten worse and worse. I’m very sympathetic to having your family around, but you be the judge of the results.

“The Bears aren’t better than us,” said a frustrated Scott Mitchell.

No, they’re not.

“We had goals and we didn’t reach them,” groaned Henry Thomas.

No, you didn’t.

We can agree or we can argue, it won’t change a thing. Missing the playoffs with a team this talented is unforgivable, far worse than getting blown out by Philadelphia in the first round last year. So the Lions are going backwards. They’re 5-7 and back to playing for — ugh — pride.

That is depressing and disgusting, and you could see it in the lowered eyes of the biggest prize this franchise has ever known. Barry Sanders should not become a national symbol of wasted talent. But he is in danger of that right now.

Mr. Ford, if you’re reading this, you and your organization have reason to be ashamed.

Everybody off the train. The next game is on Thanksgiving, but it’ll be tough to figure how those two things go together.


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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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