LIONS SHOW NO MERCY FOR ERIC THE GREAT

INDIANAPOLIS — Fortunes change. One day you’re at the bank, next day you’re at the pawnshop. One day you’re in a limo, next day you’re hitchhiking.

One day you’re racing through the Lions’ defense, next day you’re getting dropped in the end zone for a safety.

Fortunes change. Eric Dickerson spent most of Sunday afternoon under pressure and even more of it under Jerry Ball, who played squishy-squashy with the running back pretty much whenever he felt like it. Although Dickerson always has had big days against the Lions, suddenly, on this day, the very day he would move into fourth place on the all-time rushing list, he would have his worst game as a pro, a measly 17 yards rushing. Total. Against the Lions.

Remember that: against the Lions. They would bury him, smother him, crunch him, trip him up. Of the 13 times he carried the ball, more than half were stopped for zero or negative yardage. The most devastating of these came in the third quarter, when the man some call “the best rusher of all time” took a handoff in his end zone and barely got two steps before Ball dragged him down as if he were a passing ice cream man.

“In the huddle, I told my teammates, ‘Cover your men, because if Dickerson gets the ball, I’m gonna get him for a safety,’ ” Ball bragged after the Lions mushed the Colts, 33-24.

He did. Two points. Dickerson got up, so disgusted he screamed at the referee; the referee threw a flag. Dickerson marched to the sideline, pulled off his helmet, and heard the flood of boos from the hometown fans. He plopped on the bench, alone, nobody near him. This is the guy who once had the world at his feet, the guy who lit up the league with his silky moves and bursts of speed. Remember? All those Pro Bowl selections with the Rams? All those 100-yard games and 1,000-yard seasons? All that flashy talent with the reputation to match: the Malibu beach house, the Testarossa sports car, the playboy reputation, the contract that paid him what he demanded; the highest salary of any running back in the game?

Now Dickerson, 31, an aging star on a lousy team, leaned into the back of the bench, lifted his goggles, and looked out across the field . . .

Sanders now the NFL’s best

This is what he saw: The Detroit Lions defense, once a sad joke, now storming a punt and slamming the kicker — and the ball — to the ground. This is what he saw: a backup quarterback named Erik Kramer, rushed into the game when starter Rodney Peete needed his equipment adjusted (we are not making this up) and Kramer, the backup, throws a pinpoint touchdown pass to Willie Green and rushes to slap hands with him.

This is what he saw: A kid named Barry Sanders, eight years younger than Dickerson, dashing and spinning through a weak Colts defense, ringing up the yardage the way a pinball wizard rings up points (179 yards on 30 carries). In the fourth quarter, the kid was unbelievable. He took a handoff on the Colts’ 23, started right, switched direction, spun around and raced the width of the field untouched, a water bug with a football. Touchdown! So awesome was this play, and so typical now of Sanders’ magic, that Peete, standing a few yards away, threw his hands in the air, signaling touchdown, before Sanders had even reached the line of scrimmage! Arms up! Hail the New King!

On the sideline, Dickerson, the old king — who hasn’t had a 100-yard game yet this year — watched without expression, his arms stretched across the back of the bench like a man hung out to dry. He talked to no one, and no one talked to him.

“This was a win for our character,” Sanders said later, smiling above the joyous noise in the Lions’ locker room.

“I said it before and I’ll say it again,” Ball hollered, “we are not the same old Detroit Lions!”

Linebacker Chris Spielman grinned at the victorious bedlam. “Like night and day around here, huh? Things have really changed.”

Down the hall now, the man wearing No. 29 for the Colts peeled off his uniform, no doubt thinking the same thing.

Detroit’s turn to dream

“At least we scored some points,” Dickerson sighed, when asked to sum up the game that left his team winless this season, 0-4, while the Lions are a surprising 3-1. Dickerson rolled his neck. He talked about not losing hope. He talked about getting better blocking. Someone asked about Ball, who, besides sitting atop Dickerson all day as if he were a couch, also attended Dickerson’s alma mater, Southern Methodist. Dickerson shrugged and said, “I guess I’m glad a guy from my school is doing so well.’ And he dressed, as reporters fumbled for questions. Funny, no? Once, Dickerson was The Man in the NFL, boastful, controversial, so sure of himself that he insulted
“inferior” running backs. And once, the Lions would play a lowly team like the Colts and lose in some embarrassing fashion, leaving the fans at home to tear their hair out.

But today? Today the Lions are 3-1, they are on a roll and the rising tide of optimism can be felt in Detroit. And in Indianapolis, where the ship is sinking, Eric Dickerson, no longer The Man, is getting stuffed in the end zone and booed in the stands and is saying things like “at least we scored some points.”

Fortunes change. Be thankful, for once, that Detroit is on the better end.

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