LIONS’ SORRY EFFORT MEANS IMPROVEMENT MAY BE ONLY MIRAGE

SAN FRANCISCO — There was an enormous fire burning across the water Sunday, which sent black smoke billowing over the stadium. I figure someone took the Lions’ “new” reputation and stuck a match to it.

So much for that smug feeling of improvement. The Lions may have a winning record, but they still have a long way to go before they beat the Big Boys. On Sunday, against San Francisco, the Lions were simply awful, when they weren’t being pathetic. How long did they control the ball? Forty seconds? How many times did they stop the 49ers? None? Watching Detroit try to beat San Francisco was like watching Axl Rose try to play classical music. I know the Lions had the better record going in. But I’m not sure these teams play in the same league.

“I know I didn’t have one of my better days,” said a dazed Jerry Ball after the 35-3 drubbing. “I got hit in the head. I think I have a concussion. It hurts bad. But I’m not making excuses.”

That about summed up the Lions’ explanations of this stinker. Nobody had a good day. Everything hurt. But no excuses. You know what? I’d feel better if there were a few excuses. Tell me the whole team came down with whooping cough. Tell me they were all up late watching the World Series. But don’t give me this: a performance so flat, you could slip in under a refrigerator and feed it to the mice.

Which, come to think of it, must have been how the Lions felt out there against the 49ers. This was not a game, it was a clinic, and basically, the Lions sat there like good students and watched: They watched San Francisco’s second-choice quarterback pick them apart like a Christmas turkey, and then they watched the third-choice quarterback trot out and do the same. They watched nine different 49ers catch passes on them and seven different 49ers gain rushing yards. They watched the 49ers’ defense close down everything Detroit threw at them, when they weren’t busy intercepting it or picking it up off the turf. About the only thing Detroit didn’t see Sunday was the 49ers’ punter, who could have stayed at home and saved the gas money.

And now to the bad news.

The bad news was Barry Sanders, the Lions’ best weapon, who got plenty of airtime on national TV. Unfortunately, it was always a close-up of him sitting on the bench, while John Madden said, “Gee, I thought we’d see more of this guy.”

Tell me about it, John. The Lions gave Sanders the ball exactly seven times all afternoon. They tried throwing him one pass. That was it. For the best runner in the game today?

“They were keying on Barry all afternoon,” explained Wayne Fontes.

Yeah? So what? You don’t think every team is going to do that? When you have Barry Sanders on your team, USE HIM. If the 49er defense keys on him, let him run into the flat, then hit him with a short pass. Fontes said San Francisco was “shadowing” Sanders with a man, thus preventing this. I watched play after play from upstairs and sorry, I didn’t see it. Sanders was open plenty of the time. Besides, even if someone is shadowing the man, hell, I’d rather take my chances with Barry and one guy than not use him at all.

“Shoot, I’ll take Barry and three guys,” said Lomas Brown, the offensive tackle.

OK. Barry and three guys. The point is, you have to try. You can’t say,
“Well, he’s covered,” and give up on him. Seven rushes and one attempted pass is not a sufficient test for a game. All it does is play into the opponent’s hands. And don’t be surprised if every team from here on in tries to do exactly what the 49ers did Sunday. They will.

Said Fontes: “We came 3,000 miles to play a very poor football game.”

Hey, Wayne. It’s only 2,000 miles from Detroit.

No wonder your guys were so tired.

Which brings us to the Detroit defense, which had gotten pretty high on its horse the last few weeks. I think 505 yards surrendered might bring those guys down to earth. That, or the fact that in allowing the 49ers five touchdowns, they only stopped them once on third down. And that one time, the 49ers went for it on fourth down and wound up with a touchdown.

“Maybe we got complacent, who knows?” sighed Chris Spielman. I’ll tell you what they did get: exhausted. They were out there, in the heat and the smoke, for more than 45 minutes of the 60-minute game. Field position didn’t matter to the 49ers. Four of their five touchdown drives began on their own 11-, 12-, 20- and 32-yard lines. Heck. You could have started them in San Mateo, the 49ers would have found the end zone.

“It was important for us to have a game like that,” said their coach, George Seifert, whose team has come under fire lately for slipping to a losing record, “and we can’t have anything less from here on out.”

I like that. High expectations.

What I don’t like is this: hearing the Lions shrug Sunday off by pointing to the standings.

“We’re still 5-2 and tied for first place,” said Rodney Peete.

“We’re 5-2 and tied for first place,” said Spielman.

“We’re still 5-2,” said Brown.

Hey. Fellas. So what? Keep this up and you could be 5-11 when the season is over. A winning record is not a pillow to lie on when you hurt; it’s a foundation to build on, higher and higher, you can never stop.

The fact is, Detroit’s impressive record was built against five teams that, if you gave each one a letter, would spell L- O-U-S-Y. This is also fact: Against the only two quality teams the Lions have faced (San Francisco, Washington), they have lost by a combined score of 70-3.

Until they beat the Big Boys — and they have Dallas, Buffalo and two Chicago games left on the schedule — the jury will be out the Lions’ improvement. Sometimes it can seem as real as a crunching tackle. And other times, like Sunday, it can seem as thin as smoke.

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