SAD SACKSNEW ORLEANS 13, DETROIT 7NO RUN, NO SHOOT, NO FUN

So when does hockey season start?

If that was the last best playoff chance for our football team — and some people think it was — we might as well get real, grab our coats, shut the photo album. Not that Sunday afternoon’s finish was much to remember: Rodney Peete, chased like a criminal, sacked like potatoes. Willie Green, diving in the turf for a ball that was 10 feet away. The crowd leaving, booing, as Scott Conover, an offensive lineman, is called for yet another Detroit false start . . .

False start?

Oh, if it were only a false start. If only this suddenly dry offense and overworked defense could shut their eyes and wake up to find this was all a bad dream. Instead, after falling to 1-4, the Lions once again slugged back to a losing locker room, all mumbling the same word: execution. I don’t know whether they meant their own.

I do know this: From last year’s high-flying, point-scoring, don’t-know-how-we’re-winning-and-we-don’t-care juggernaut, the Lions have stumbled to a low-flying, barely scoring, don’t-know-why-we’re-losing-and-we-can’t-explain-it car wreck.

“Terrible football game,” said coach Wayne Fontes, after a 13-7 loss to New Orleans. True, the Saints embarrass a lot of people.

Still, we shouldn’t have this: Barry Sanders, the biggest prize in the running back sweepstakes, sitting by his locker in jeans and an orange shirt, looking young, looking fresh, looking ready to go.

Unfortunately, this was after the game.

“You’re not tired?” I asked.

“Oh, man,” he said, “I’m not tired at all. I could play another game right now.”

Huh? Wait a sec. Barry Sanders should be gasping. Barry Sanders should be wheezing. Barry Sanders should be bruised and sore and dizzy and exhausted. He also should be the nightmare that every defender is going home with on the plane.

Instead, he had another afternoon of preservation — 36 yards on nine carries. The good news: At this rate, he’ll play when he’s 50. The bad news: The Lions still will be wondering how to get him open. Fingers of fate

Now, OK. Before we explore how the once-best part of this team, the offense with Sanders, has shriveled like a prune, let us pay homage to the defense — before it collapses. These guys should get double paychecks. They are out there long enough to discuss Proust with the referees. And despite surrendering on too many third downs (the Saints converted five out of seven in the second half), they still stiffen when it counts, near the goal line. To give up 13 points of blood to an offense that gets 41 minutes’ worth of bullets, that’s impressive. Take a bow, defense. Right into bed. Nighty, night.

Now. The offense.

“I don’t want to point any fingers, I don’t have the authority,” said wide receiver Brett Perriman, “but there are guys in this room who should turn in their paychecks for this game.”

Whom is he talking about? You figure it out. Here. I’ll help. Consider this: The Lions offense has a quarterback who can tell you what every opposing lineman ate for breakfast. It has a running back who is lucky to see the line of scrimmage. On Sunday, this offense earned just two first downs in the entire second half.

Now. There are only a few possible explanations:
* 1) The coaches are fools? I don’t think so. True, it seems as if they are jumping schemes every week. They run ‘n’ shoot. They go to the power game. They use two tights ends. Then one tight end. Four wides. Three wides. “We very seldom we get a chance to stick to a plan,” Sanders said. “I think it affects us.” OK, but on paper these schemes work. Unless Fontes and Dan Henning are speaking in French, what they’re teaching should be productive, unless. . . .
* 2) Rodney Peete is an ineffective quarterback? I don’t buy that. And the people who were booing him should have their mouths taped. Hey, it ain’t easy to complete a pass when the four closest bodies are all wearing New Orleans uniforms. Yeah, he fumbled a handoff. So what? You want miracles when you’re getting smothered? Go to Wrestlemania.
* 3) Sanders has lost it? Come on.
* 4) The offensive line is not blocking? Hmm. Well. How can we put this?

Bingo? No more patience

Now, this is hardly news. We’ve been talking about it all season. Everyone knows the tragic loss of Mike Utley and Eric Andolsek really hurt this unit. But come on. Utley was gone for much of last year, and the Lions still won games. And if Andolsek is the difference in 1-4 this year and 4-1 last year, then we really underrated the guy when he was with us.

“The thing is, you can replace one lineman, but to replace two is tough,” Peete said. Maybe that’s true. But if the guys replacing them aren’t doing the job, something must be done. Fontes has tried new players. Hasn’t worked. He has tried new schemes. Hasn’t worked. The fact is, it takes young linemen such as Shawn Bouwens a couple of years to mature. It’s not fair to rush him.

But that’s what’s happening. And now other players are losing patience.

“You guys all know what the problem is,” said Perriman to a group of reporters. “I can’t say it, but I’m bleeped off about it right now.”

“I know that kind of stuff is coming,” sighed tackle Lomas Brown. “And it’s only gonna get worse. As long as we’re losing, they’re gonna be pointing fingers at the offensive line.”

Yes. And at the dropped passes and the sacks and that Sanders is barely breaking a sweat — because the Lions can’t figure out how to use him. Do you realize this team has scored seven offensive touchdowns in five games? The same team that averaged 21 points last year? Coaches are always saying “it’s a game of blocking.”

Consider it a lesson learned. A shame, really. The start of this football season was as much fun as the Lions have generated in years. There was so much optimism, people came to the Silverdome and didn’t even look for the easiest-exit parking spot.

But real is real. And while the Lions can certainly come back from 1-4 to have a nice season, making the playoffs is going to be tough. Especially because one team in the division, Minnesota, is already 4-1.

“Something’s missing,” Brown said.

“This year is different,” Fontes said.

Maybe. Or maybe last year was the aberration. The Lions went from a losing team to 12-4. That’s pretty unusual. Credit Utley. Credit momentum. Credit teams on the schedule such as the Rams, Jets and Colts.

That was then, this is now. To beat teams such as New Orleans, Washington, Dallas, Houston and San Francisco, you need more than inspiration. You need players at peak performance. And right now the Lions are not getting that — particularly on their offensive line. If that’s going to be their excuse, so be it. And if there’s nothing they can do about it, so be it.

But if there’s nothing they can do about it, then there’s little for the fans to look forward to, is there?

Except hockey season.

It starts Tuesday, by the way.

(SIDEBAR:) BARRY BUSTERS

In his first five games last season, Barry Sanders rushed for 640 yards. The Lions won all five (he missed the opening-night loss because of injury). This season, Sanders has 315 yards in his first five games, four of them losses.

This season GAME ATT YDS AVG TD Bears 19 109 5.7 1 Vikes 26 66 2.5 0 Skins 14 34 2.4 0

Bucs 20 70 3.5 0 Saints 9 36 4.0 0 Totals 88 315 3.6 1

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