LIONS MUST FIRE M & M BOYSFORDS SKIP FINAL LOSS, SAY NOTHING ABOUT TEAM BRASS

The highlight of the Lions’ 2002 season took place Sunday.

It ended.

Here in a town where football could be king, Detroit’s court jesters closed this year’s NFL campaign with interceptions, penalties and a pass defense that couldn’t stop Frodo Baggins. Oh, and they lost, again, in the closing seconds, when the offense blew a two-point conversion, leaving only one question in Detroit this morning: What happens next? Are they really gonna keep president Matt Millen and coach Marty Mornhinweg?

We’d like to tell you what the owners said, but the owners were on vacation in Florida. Unlike the peasants who support this team, the Fords can go someplace warm for their Sunday entertainment.

If they were here, however, and if they had any shame, they would put a close to this sad chapter in Detroit football history right now. Twenty-seven losses and only five victories? Two years without a road victory? Only one victory in the division all season? That’s not a work in progress. That’s Pompeii.

“I’m proud of these players,” Mornhinweg said after the 38-36 loss to Minnesota at Ford Field. “I asked for passion and enthusiasm and they gave –“

STOP! No more effort talk. Let’s get this straight: It’s not that the Lions don’t play hard. It’s that they only play hard. They see breaking a sweat as an accomplishment and the words “we never gave up” as a gold star. News flash for players and coach: They don’t rank teams by who didn’t give up. They rank them by victories.

The Lions don’t win. In fact, this year they won less than Houston, an expansion team, and less than Carolina, a team that went 1-15 last season. They won less than every team in the league except woeful Cincinnati.

In Dallas, where they win far more than Detroit, the owner was so disgusted with his season that he was interviewing Bill Parcells two weeks ago! Here? The owners are on vacation.

And Mornhinweg plans on “business as usual.”

And the fans? They’re in limbo, left to ponder the possibilities by themselves.

Fine. Let’s ponder.

If this, then that

* Possibility No. 1: Marty leaves, Matt stays. A new coach is hired. Will it be anyone great? Not likely. What great coach would work under Millen? No offense, but these days the great ones want to run the whole show, GM duties and all. That leaves some promising assistant looking for his first shot. You know what they called that two years ago? Marty Mornhinweg.

* Possibility No. 2: Marty leaves AND Matt leaves. The house is cleaned. And now what? You need a new general manager AND a new coach, which means a new staff, which means a new direction, which means confused players, which means cut players, which means another two years to reorganize while fans are told the new regime “needs time.”

* Possibility No. 3: Marty stays but Matt leaves. No way. Isn’t gonna happen.

* Possibility No. 4: They both stay. They get another year. The Fords watch the money roll in and finally, if next year is as dismal as this one, they fire both men next December and say, “We gave them ample chance. We need a new direction.”

If I were a betting man, I’d count on No. 4. Why? It’s the easiest. And the least expensive. And those are two directions that William Clay Ford’s compass often seems to point.

Then again, we won’t know until the Fords deign to tell us. Which is — as any Lions fan can tell you — the most maddening part of all.

Listen. I like Junior and Senior. They are both genial men. But the Fords run this franchise like the royal family runs Buckingham Palace. They speak when they want to. They appear beyond reproach. Even when their team is a colossal mess they keep a stiff upper lip and ignore the outcries. The fans — or are we subjects? — are tolerated like commoners, given a morsel of an answer but only on the royals’ timetable. And the same way kings could demand taxes while ignoring their people’s needs, so too can the Fords count on ticket money and the NFL’s shared revenue even as they ignore the fans.

Heck. You can’t even get angry at them, because they’re not INVOLVED enough to be angry at!

Sorry.

Is my frustration showing?

Too many words, too few actions

“This team is poised to make a run!” Mornhinweg declared Sunday after the Lions finished 3-13. “We just need a few guys who can make touchdowns, and a few guys who can prevent touchdowns.”

And all I need is good looks, black hair and a singing voice and I’m Elvis.

By the way: Under M&M, the Lions have had players who make and prevent touchdowns. It’s just that the former are on defense and the latter on offense.

Still, to listen to Mornhinweg talk, to see that determined grin and unblinking stare, to hear him dodge questions about his future — at one point Sunday he insisted we “talk about the game” as if a season ender to the Vikings meant anything at all — is painful to watch.

It’s not that Mornhinweg lacks skills. He really does get the game of football and players really do like him. And it’s not that Millen is a terrible president. He is as smart as advertised and he knows what he wants.

But this is a results business and in two years, this pair got no results. They brought in some young players who showed promise, but when those same players messed up, fans were told “they’re young.” How many young players with promise who make mistakes turn into older players with no promise who still don’t deliver? We heard it about Bryant Westbrook, Terry Fair, Charlie Batch, Aaron Gibson . . .

“This league is all about performance,” said linebacker Chris Claiborne, one of the few players who talks in the cold, hard terms of the real NFL. “But if the owner can live with what happens here, that’s all that matters.”

Always has been. Always will be. The owners, on Sunday, were living with an embarrassing loss someplace near a beach. While Lions fans, as usual, feel as if they washed up on one.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also hear “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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