WELL, AS Woody Allen once said, that was as much fun as you can have with your clothes on.
Here were the Lions, all but dead, their fans heading for the exits, figuring fourth-and-26 with a backup quarterback is not exactly a reason to stay in your seat. Might as well beat the traffic. Fourth-and-26? In the dictionary, that’s somewhere between “helpless” and “hopeless.”
Besides, the Lions were playing as if a truck had hit them, still dazed by a blow from the New New Thing, St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner. He had marched his Rams down the field like a snowplow through slush, and put them ahead, 27-24, with less than three minutes to go.
Once the Lions lost their lead, they lost sense of direction. They began going backward. Sack. Fumble. Sack.
Which is how you get to fourth-and-26.
“Do you even have a play to call for fourth-and-26?” someone would later ask quarterback Gus Frerotte.
“Yeah,” he’d answer. “A good protection play.”
They gave him good protection. He dropped back, revved up and heaved it. I mean, HEAVED it. Up, up and away. Cheech and Chong don’t get that high.
And down the left sideline, Germane Crowell kept running.
He ran, and he ran. He might have stopped for oxygen. He was nearly 50 yards from scrimmage when one Rams defender, cornerback Dexter McCleon, fell down
(exhaustion?). Another, safety Billy Jenkins, was out of position. How you get out of position on fourth-and-26 is a good question, but never mind. Suddenly, over his shoulder, Crowell saw this object. An angel? A beer cup?
No, a football. Coming down from the lights.
“I was thinking, somebody’s gonna hit it, or hit me, or something,” Crowell said.
Instead, the ball fell unobstructed into his hands, and the Lions went from dead to dancing. Fourth-and-26? And they converted a 57-yard pass? And they went on to score a touchdown and win the game and now share the best record in the NFC at the halfway point of the Barry Sanders Retirement Year?
What’s next? They part the Red Sea?
You gotta love Gus
“What do you think of when someone says fourth-and-26?” someone asked safety Mark Carrier, after the Lions claimed their most unlikely win of the season, 31-27, to improve to 6-2.
“To be honest, I already had my mouthpiece in and my helmet on, ready to go back on defense,” Carrier said.
Who wouldn’t? This was one of those games where the Lions seemed destined to lament “a bad break here” and a “tough break there.” They had already suffered so many lows, including: Greg Hill tackled for a safety early in the game; Charlie Batch leaving with an injured thumb; Robert Bailey taking his eye off the receiver and surrendering a 75-yard touchdown; the running game totaling 24 yards; Bryant Westbrook getting burned all day, including a killer pass-interference penalty in the fourth quarter.
It was adding up to another wacko loss for this franchise, and another weirdo victory for the Rams, who, to this point in the season, were the only team more unexpectedly successful than Detroit.
And then came that fourth-and-26, which I hereby nominate for a permanent place in the Lions’ playbook. In fact, from here on in — at least whenever Frerotte comes into the game — maybe they should throw the playbook out altogether.
You gotta love Frerotte, the backup QB. Half the time he looks brilliant, and half the time he looks like he’s wearing a blindfold. He goes down. Then he gets up. Then he throws a miracle. Then he jumps onto the bench and raises his fists to the crowd.
“What were you thinking on that fourth-and-26?” Frerotte was asked.
“I was just hoping I didn’t throw it out of bounds.”
“And what were you thinking when you threw that 12-yard touchdown to Johnnie Morton in the end zone to win it?”
“That? That was basically a throwaway.”
See what I mean? A throwaway? An “I hope it doesn’t go out of bounds” ?
On such things can a season turn.
Now these things go Lions’ way
And make no mistake. This game was a season-turner. Not a turnaround — because the Lions already were pointed in the right direction. But a turner just the same, because games like this make the players believe they are somehow meant to win. The true value of this finish will be felt in other games that come down to the wire, when previous Detroit teams would figure forget it, we’re gonna lose.
“Last year,” Carrier said, “that fourth-and-26 would have happened to us. This year, we’re doing it to other people.”
And not just any people: the Rams, the Packers, the Vikings.
Now, make no mistake. The Lions would not have been in this game without Batch’s early efforts, or Jason Hanson’s reliable foot, or the general excellence of the defense, which held Marshall Faulk to just 15 yards rushing, and sacked Warner four times.
True, the Lions made errors. But they overcame them. True, there were ugly penalties. But some went the Lions’ way. True, it was, as coach Bobby Ross said, “not pretty.” But the games around here used to be not pretty in the beginning, middle and the end.
Now, the end part has changed. This whole team has changed. The attitude. The expectations. Certainly the results.
On my way to the locker room, I passed a group of celebrating fans coming down the hallway. They were hanging on each others’ shoulders, laughing, high-fiving. They passed a concession stand and yelled “LIONS! LIONS!” And the concession workers yelled back, “LIONS! WHOOO!”
When was the last time we had that kind of spirit around here?
Maybe the last time Detroit looked between “helpless” and “hopeless” and found “hocus-pocus.”
“What do you think of when someone says fourth-and-26?” someone asked safety Ron Rice.
Are Sundays getting fun around here, or am I nuts?
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM