LIONS TRY THEIR FANS’ SOULS IN ANOTHER SPIRITLESS WIN

Losing. Five seconds left in the half. Eric Hipple leaned over the center, cupped his hands.

The Lions were a full four yards from the end zone, trailing by three points, and, damn, everyone knew they should be going for a field goal, not a touchdown.

But Hipple knew something else.

“Hut, hut . . . “

No one cared about this game. Tampa Bay vs. Detroit — one team winless, the other a loser to pitiful Indianapolis the week before.

There were more empty seats at the Silverdome Sunday afternoon than at a poetry reading in Las Vegas. They couldn’t do a Wave. They couldn’t even do a Puddle.

And those who were there — was it a punishment? did they lose a bet? — reacted like the typical caged animal. Boo their team. Boo our team. They booed everything that moved. The water boy ran off in tears.

It all added up to an atmosphere of big deal, doesn’t matter, let’s go home and watch the Elvis movie on Channel 50.

Only it did matter. It mattered a lot. Because this was one of those games you have to swallow like cough syrup and pray you don’t choke. The games against doormats, the snoozers, the games you’re supposed to win.

These are the games that try men’s souls. Men in shoulder pads, anyhow.

And Hipple knew it.

“Hut, hut . . . ” Hipple couldn’t afford a repeat

Snap.

Hipple whipped the ball into the gut of receiver Mark Nichols, and the zebra gave the touchdown sign. The Lions were back on top.

And the quarterback started breathing again.

Remember that last week it was Hipple who fumbled a snap on a crucial fourth-quarter drive as the Lions lost to the previously-winless Colts, 14-6.

Bad news. They couldn’t afford a repeat. Not with their schedule. Over the next six weeks the Lions face four division champions. We’re talking Redskins, Bears, 49ers, Dolphins. We’re talking blood.

So despite Tampa Bay’s 0-3 record, despite their Chiropractor Offense — give it to the back! — despite the fact that a sitar concert might be more exciting, this game was, in its own way, crucial, and Lions fans should be thankful the team got out with a win.

Because it was not a masterpiece.

Tampa Bay’s offensive line mowed through the Lions in the first half, opening holes that Shelly Winters could have gotten through. The Bucs put James Wilder in there instead. In fact, the Bucs put James Wilder everywhere. The last group to depend so much on one man was the Union Gap.

Fortunately for Detroit, the Bucs’ offense disappears after Wilder.

And yet, until that go-for-it call just before halftime, the Lions were losing. And they really didn’t put the game away until the fourth quarter, after the Bucs fumbled over the ball.

Steve Martin used to say, “Comedy isn’t pretty.”

Sometimes, neither is victory. OK for Hefner, not for Lions

But OK, 3-1 is 3-1. The Lions may need the padding.

They’ve finished boot camp. Time to ship out against the real teams.

“It’s going to be a week-to-week struggle,” admitted coach Darryl Rogers. And here’s why:

Though the Lions’ defense has generally held its own, their offense has been scattershot at best.

Sometimes they run. Sometimes they complete a pass. Sometimes they even score. But the same things can be said of Hugh Hefner, and he doesn’t have to play the Packers next week.

Without fullback James Jones the Lions are like cyclists in lead boots. Either Wilbert Montgomery needs bigger holes or the offensive line needs a faster running back, but one way or another he’s not breaking through enough.

And Hipple, despite Sunday’s heroics, has generally played like an old Duke Ellington record. Sometimes he’s smooth as blue velvet, and sometimes he skips all over the place.

They are 3-1, but there’s a nagging sensation that they could just as easily be a lot worse.

But, OK. Let’s be optimistic. Let’s say Sunday was a motivation thing. Getting up for a game against the Bucs is like getting up to shovel snow. And just as entertaining.

The Lions won. It counts. That’s mostly what you want to hear for now.

These are the games that try mens’ souls.

The ones coming up will try everything else.

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