We don’t know how to win,” Chris Spielman said. His jaw was clenched. His hair was sweat-soaked. He spoke as if in a trance. “We don’t know how to win. Before you can win, you have to know how. Washington knows how. Maybe one day we will. But right now, we do not know how to win. It’s that simple.”
And he stopped talking. For all the craziness of this chilly afternoon, all the points, all the yardage, the final overtime field goal that pierced the heart of yet another Detroit Sunday, this is all you need to know, Spielman is dead on the money: The Lions do not know how to win football games. Not the ones they have to. They get the things in their hands like ice cream, and then they watch them melt.
Ridiculous. Embarrassing. Depressing. You can hang the words in any order you like. This was the worst loss in years, worse than that massacre down in Kansas City, because the Lions were never in that game, that was just bloodshed. Anyone can die. It’s the teams that kill themselves that drive you crazy.
And here, Sunday afternoon, was yet another Lions team that took the knife and jammed it right into its gut. They had a three-touchdown lead; they blew it. They had possession in overtime; they blew it. They had the best running back in the NFC — at least I think he is, since we rarely get to see him anymore — and they didn’t use him once in the fourth quarter or overtime, not once, even though, on at least two occasions, all they needed was a first down to win the game.
Their defense, on the field for what seemed like months, was exhausted. It was also terrible. For much of the game, it played what Wayne Fontes calls bend-but-don’t-break. It looked more like bend-but-don’t-tackle. How much real estate did the Lions surrender? Six hundred and seventy-four yards? Geez. Why not throw in a few sky-boxes, too?
The Lions’ defense did something that few thought possible: They made Jeff Rutledge look like Johnny Unitas. This is the same Jeff Rutledge whom the Redskins signed at the last minute to replace quarterback Doug Williams, and Williams, when he heard the name, said “Rutledge? Give me a break.”
And this guy Rutledge — who played only half the game, remember — the Lions allow him 30 completions, 363 yards and five scoring drives, all of which began miles from the Detroit goal line.
In the end, a kicker named Chip got the winning field goal, which I find appropriate, since the Lions’ defenders played like “My Three Sons.”
What happened to Barry?
And after this embarrassment, the worst collapse since the Silverdome roof, this is what Wayne Fontes said: “It was a great effort by (our) football team. . . . It’s a shame the game got away from us. . . . I’m proud of this football team.”
Here is what I want to know: Does anybody swallow this stuff?
Come on, Coach. We’re not that stupid. Maybe Fontes was trying to detour criticism away from the players and toward himself. Why bother? He was gonna get it anyhow. After all, it wasn’t the players who didn’t dress Andre Ware. It wasn’t the players who directed, at times, 10 and 12 men on the field. It wasn’t the players who kept the ball out of Barry Sanders’ hands while Washington made it 38-24, then 38-31, then 38-38, then 41-38. Someone asked Sanders whether he ever went to the coaches and asked for the ball or if he ever felt like doing it?
“I’ve . . . never done it,” he said, deliberately skirting the second question.
But the misuse of Sanders is an old problem with this team — and its cryptic offense, the Hardly Run ‘n’ Shoot. Which brings us to Bob Gagliano. There are bad days. There are disasters. Bob was having a disaster. He came in for injured Rodney Peete, took an offense that had scored 35 points and slowly ground it to a halt. Nine incompletions. Scrambling for his life. He still could have saved the day, in overtime, on a simple crossing pattern to Richard Johnson. A completed pass would mean a first down, field goal range. He cocked his arm. He threw . . .
“We don’t know how to win.”
Here we go again
Across the hall, in the Washington locker room, a familiar face gave a sigh and a smile. Eric Williams, who escaped Detroit earlier this year, admitted his emotions were mixed watching his old friends let another game disintegrate. “But you know what?” he said. “With (Washington), as soon as we scored that first time in the fourth quarter, the feeling was like, ‘We’re gonna win.’ Over there it’s like, ‘Oh, bleep, here we go again.’ “
And that is the difference. That is what Spielman is talking about. Teams that know how to win see not having the lead as a temporary problem. And when they have a lead, they take it and shove it down the opponent’s throat. The killer instinct. Twenty-one points is enough to do that. Ten points is enough. But first you need that vampire’s taste for victory and the belief that you are worthy of it. For all of Fontes’ cheerleading, his team does not have this quality. Not yet. Until it does, no season can be a success.
“For me,” Rutledge said to a group of reporters, “today was a dream come true.”
Yeah? It was the same old nightmare for us.
Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new anthology, “Live Albom II,” at 7:15 p.m. today at Book People in West Bloomfield and at Book Stall on the Main in Northville at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.