MIDTERM GRADE: NOT BAD, NOT GOOD

So this is where the Lions are halfway through the season. A mediocre team that can’t run the ball, can’t throw for big yardage, is (usually) decent against the run, is (usually) lousy pressuring the quarterback, is awful on third-down conversions, too often throws four-yard passes when it needs five, periodically has good special teams, has a decent takeaway-giveaway ratio, has one hurt playmaker on offense, one hurt playmaker on defense, one fine playmaker on special teams, and who, overall, has won a couple games it should have lost and lost a couple it should have won.

You add that up, you get four and four.

Or what I call Doggie Paddle Football.

Doggie Paddle Football means you don’t drown. You also don’t swim to shore. You kind of tread water and hope for a tide. That tide can be coaching. It can be maturity. Or it can — and this is what you fear — never come.

In which case you jut float out there, spitting water, as the rest of the league swims past.

We still don’t know if that’s the Lions this year. They certainly looked like a duck decoy Sunday, losing to the lowly Redskins, 17-10, at Ford Field. A series of go-nowhere drives. A blocked punt returned for a touchdown. A sucker play in which Clinton Portis, who killed them running the ball, passed for a touchdown as well.

That was pretty much the game. The rest was depressing, three-and-out drudgery, a failed late comeback, four running backs who totaled 50 yards, and a chorus of boos when the offense fizzled.

And, man, it fizzled a lot.

No reason to get angry

“Do you know which team you’re getting week after week?” coach Steve Mariucci was asked after this second straight loss to a struggling team.

“The answer to that …” he said.

And then he paused …

“… is no, not really.”

There you have it. If he doesn’t know, how can the rest of us? Sometimes the Lions play as if they’re skiing down a mountain. And sometimes they play as if they’re walking up one.

“We’re better than we were last year,” Mariucci said, “but then, we needed to be. Beating a hot Atlanta team and the Giants, those were big wins. But then the last few (Dallas and Washington) we had chances to win and didn’t.”

Be honest. Getting mad at these Lions is like getting mad at a second-grader. You forget that with youth, mistakes are inevitable and patience is mandatory.

Still, too often the Lions play like a major league pitcher on a bad night. You know he doesn’t have it way before the game is over. The Lions didn’t have it against Green Bay. You knew it early. They didn’t have it Sunday. You knew it again. This game wasn’t over in the third quarter — it just felt that way.

And it shouldn’t have been. The Redskins, in seven prior games, had beaten Tampa Bay and Chicago, which together don’t add up to one decent franchise.

A team like that can’t come in and beat the Lions at home if the Lions expect to be serious postseason contenders. There is a huge difference between 5-3 and 4-4. In Detroit’s case, it is likely the difference between playoffs and no playoffs.

The rest of the way, the Lions have just two games that, on paper, they should win, home against Arizona and home against Chicago. The rest are tough, including road games against Jacksonville, Minnesota, Green Bay and Tennessee.

Two more victories won’t get the Lions close. They’ll need at least five, and you wonder where those will come from.

“I have to find a way, me, personally, to be more productive in our running game,” Mariucci said.

No offense, Mooch, but how fast can you hit the hole?

They’re consistently inconsistent

Here is what we do know: The offensive line isn’t up to snuff. The failed running game hinges largely on that. And Joey Harrington is getting harassed too much.

Kevin Jones? To date, he has been more hype than help. He had great preseason raves. But during games, he seems, at best, a serviceable back. You give him a hole, he can pick up some yards, but something from nothing hasn’t been his strength. There’s no magic. You need only look at Portis on Sunday (147 yards rushing) to see how a spinning, accelerating, juking back helps creates his own numbers.

As for Harrington? His jury remains out. Too many head-scratching bad throws. Too high, too low, too wide, too often. But then he’ll get in a zone and you’ll think, “Yeah, if he can keep this up …”

The same seems true for the defense: “up and down” is the kindest description.

“How do you play more consistent football?” someone asked Harrington.

“Be consistent,” he said.

College education.

You know what it all adds up to? Four and four. Doggie Paddle Football. Meanwhile, this footnote: Did you realize Sunday’s loss to the Redskins makes Washington coach Joe Gibbs — who left the game for a dozen years — 11-0 against Detroit? It’s pretty depressing when a guy can go away for that long and return to find the Lions right where he left them.

Then again, fans have been doing that for years.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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