LIONS’ NEAR VICTORY A REASON TO BE NICE

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — I am going to do something I rarely do on Monday morning after a Lions defeat.

I am going to be nice.

Hello? . . . Wake up . . . you fainted. Yes, I know they blew it, they are still winless in 1989. But the fact is, as I sat in the press box after the Lions’ 24-14 loss Sunday to the New York Giants, the thing that struck me most was not how they lost but how close they came to winning. Of course the fact that a 10-point defeat is “close to winning” tells you all you need to know about Detroit football.

But wait. Think about it. The Lions led, 14-3, early in the third quarter
— and were it not for a Barry Sanders fumble to end the first half, it might have been 21-3. They were not doing it with mirrors, or charity. Their stretch offense, for the first time since they dragged in the chalkboards and introduced it in class, was actually . . . effective.

There. I said it. You may have seen only the final score. You know what I saw? I saw passes caught, not dropped. I saw deception and misdirection. I saw Barry Sanders running screen plays all over the artificial turf.

I saw Richard Johnson grabbing a throw over the middle, spinning off a tackle and darting down the sidelines for a touchdown, 71 yards, which was made so much sweeter when New York’s Lawrence Taylor, famous author and reformed drug-user, took a swan dive at Johnson and missed badly. Oh. Sorry, L.T. Hurt yourself?

I saw Jason Phillips catching a bullet over the middle. I saw Bob Gagliano running the option and keeping it for a gain. And I saw Sanders, who is single-handedly breathing life into the nostrils of Detroit fandom, spinning and diving and taking a carry that should have ended in a pile and turning it into a four-yard touchdown run.

I’m trying to be nice.

How am I doing so far? Receivers finally catching on

“They look a lot different than I remember them. They’re quicker. They’re better. And the biggest difference is that No. 20. That kid is going to be a great back.”

You know who said that? No, not Darryl Rogers. That was Carl Banks, the Giants’ star linebacker. And his word should count for something. New York took the Lions lightly coming into this game, the newspapers here were writing them off as a pit stop between last week’s Washington game and next week’s game vs. Phoenix. And while the Lions didn’t exactly derail the one-time Super Bowl champs, they caused them concern.

Really. I’m not kidding. The Giants told me so — the same Giants who nearly cried in shame last year when trailing the Lions at halftime. Detroit kept it competitive, right to the homestretch, when Gagliano became interception-prone and the defense (which was supposed to be its strength) collapsed like an old building and allowed three touchdowns in 10 minutes.

Wait. I’m not done telling you what I saw.

I saw Gagliano (344 yards passing) holding the ball to the last second, then dumping to Sanders (153 yards total offense), who galloped upfield at a heart-thumping pace. I saw wide receiver Robert Clark come back and pound a New York defender for a block that sprang Gagliano for an extra five yards. I saw an offensive line that did an admirable job of keeping the nasty New York pass rush at bay.

And I saw Johnson catch nine passes — which may be more than Jeff Chadwick had all last season — and was certainly the most any Lion has caught in one game since lord knows when.

Caught. Not dropped. Very nice.

How am I doing? At last, promise for the future

“They’re gonna give teams some problems. We practiced all week on that offense and we still couldn’t stop them until the end.”

You know who said that? No. Not Lou Holtz. That was Bill Parcells, the Giants’ coach. Slowly, gradually, the morsels of respect may be coming from the opposition.

Now, OK. I know about the final score. I know the Giants went through the Lions’ secondary like a bull goes through a fence. I know three poorly conceived Gagliano passes wound up as killing interceptions. I know the Lions are still in the NFC Central basement, and they will not stray far from it all year. You don’t expect a baby to jump out of the crib and start driving the car, do you?

But I also know change when I see it, and what I saw Sunday was not the same offense we have been watching for years. I know this, because halfway through the first quarter, I was not tempted to leave the press box and find a good book.

“I told the players after this game, ‘We’re getting better,’ ” Lions coach Wayne Fontes said. “We’re getting better.”

Call me crazy. I almost believe him.

Am I going soft? Do I need help? Maybe I just can’t take a Michigan loss to Notre Dame and a Lions loss to New York within 24 hours.

Whatever. For today, anyhow, I’m taking some solace in the promise. And for those of you who prefer the insults more usually associated with Monday mornings, have no fear.

There’s always next week.

They play the Bears. CUTLINE Barry Sanders

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