LIONS SEEM NO WISER FROM THEIR DEFEATS

Here’s the part that makes you feel better:

The Denver Broncos won the last Super Bowl. They lost their star player and missed this year’s playoffs.

The Atlanta Falcons were in that same Super Bowl. They lost their star player and missed this year’s playoffs.

The New York Jets went to last season’s AFC championship game. They lost their star player and missed this year’s playoffs.

And the Green Bay Packers, a perennial playoff team? They lost only a coach. And they missed this year’s playoffs, too.

The Lions, meanwhile, won only five games last season. They lost their star player, Barry Sanders. Yet they made the playoffs.

They improved with Barry gone. Say that to yourself, over and over. They improved with Barry gone. Are you saying it? Good.

Because that’s it for the part that makes you feel better.

Here’s the part that makes you feel worse.

The Lions blew a rare opportunity Saturday by crapping out of the playoffs. This season is Halley’s comet, all weird light and funny streaks, great teams playing poorly and poor teams playing great.

And because of that, the Lions, who normally can’t hang with the Denver/Green Bay/Dallas elite, had their best chance to steal a Super Bowl appearance. If the Rams, 4-12 last year, were suddenly the team to beat, what was to stop the Lions from doing it?

In the end, only themselves.

Once again, they proved up to the task.

New wrinkles to familiar refrain

“We needed to be ready and we weren’t ready,” Robert Porcher said after the 27-13 playoff bow to Washington on Saturday. “I can’t explain it.”

Well, if he can’t explain it, how are we supposed to?

We do know this. What’s so irksome about these Lions isn’t their record. No one expected them to go 8-8 and make the playoffs (although those two things should never go hand in hand).

No, what’s irksome is how the Lions squandered the chance once they had it. However they wound up 6-2 — smoke, mirrors, deal with the devil — they should have realized they were onto something special, the way the Rams did.

Instead, at 6-2, the Lions went on the road and promptly lost two games they could have won. They came home for their annual Thanksgiving victory — which is becoming as meaningless as winning a People’s Choice award — then won one more game the rest of the year while losing the last four.

On Saturday, they came apart like a cracker in soup.

There is no point dissecting that performance in Washington. It was such a total collapse, from the first sack of Gus Frerotte, that the game was, in effect, over by the end of the first quarter. ABC should have cut to Peter Jennings’ telling people the new millennium, in Detroit, looks much like the old one.

But then, there’s no point in clucking “same old Lions.” First of all, it’s not true. Losing Sanders to retirement and Charlie Batch to a thumb injury are just two examples of things that have never happened before. Besides, most of these players weren’t here for the Wayne Fontes era, let alone the Darryl Rogers or Monte Clark years.

The pattern that matters is not the heartbreak. It’s the lack of improvement, a problem the Lions’ coaches and front office are paid to fix.

For example….

The crumbling building blocks

The offensive line. It was tissue paper Saturday. But what’s worse is how long the Lions have been trying to fix it. Do you realize the Lions drafted an offensive lineman in the first or second round in 1996, 1997 and 1999? What do they have to show for it? Not to be cruel, but when the Lions’ line isn’t injured or drawing flags, it protects like a sleeping cat.

The secondary. This rebuilding project is more laughable than Detroit’s pothole fixing. In 1997, the Lions took cornerback Bryant Westbrook in the first round and cornerback Kevin Abrams in the second. In 1998, they made cornerback Terry Fair their first pick. In the last four years, they’ve used seven picks on defensive backs.

Geez. How many corners does one field have?

The ridiculous part is that the secondary is still no better. If Westbrook doesn’t draw a major pass interference penalty each week, you call the team doctor.

There are other issues. No running game. (How does Denver have Olandis Gary as a backup while the Lions have Greg Hill?) Herman Moore seems to have fallen from grace. The Lions’ penalties are maddening (didn’t you want to smash your TV set when Clint Kriewaldt ran into the punter Saturday?). And they have a disturbing habit of, as the players say, “coming out flat.” Why? Six days isn’t enough time to un-flatten?

That kind of stuff is on the coaches. Bobby Ross had his hands full this year with injuries and the Sanders mess. But this is the second straight season he has lost his last four regular-season games.

The shame is not in defeat. The shame is in not growing from it. And the Lions, by sinking so terribly, erased anything positive from the first half of the season. They gave themselves nothing to build on for 2000.

Even worse, years from now, when you look back on this season and see a Super Bowl champion that perhaps didn’t get there again for a decade, you’ll feel a certain lump knowing it could have been the Lions.

After Saturday’s game, Johnnie Morton said, “If all (Lions fans) are gonna talk about is negativity, that’s all they’re gonna get.”

Make you a deal, Johnnie. We’ll stop talking if you guys start winning.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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