PHILADELPHIA– As reporters gathered outside the Lions’ locker room after yet another early-season loss, they pulled out their notepads and prepared to face the players. One guy looked around and mumbled, “Anyone got any new questions I can use?”

It was a grim but accurate statement about pro football in Detroit. Same questions. Same answers. Same dull toothache. The Lions, under Wayne Fontes, play their games the way they play their seasons — too casual at the start, a mad rush at the end. Almost always, they come up short, talking about “next week.”

So here we were again Sunday afternoon, under a brilliant autumn sun, watching a second-year coach, Ray Rhodes, and a cast-off Lions quarterback, Rodney Peete, play a smarter game than Detroit in almost all respects. Did you ever have the feeling the rest of the football world is spinning around, and Detroit is standing still?

Welcome to the nightmare. As the sun began to sink, so did the Lions. They missed tackles. They missed catches. They fell into a hole — giving up more than 400 yards of offense — then tried desperately to burrow out.

Here is how they fared: On third down in the fourth quarter, a crucial moment in the game, they had the Eagles needing 28 yards for a first down. That is not a typo, folks. That’s 28 yards. All the Lions had to do was hold, force a punt and, amazingly, try to tie the score.

What happens? Peete throws a short pass to receiver Chris T. Jones, and Corey Raymond, the Lions’ defensive back, decides he’s going to be a hero and pick it off. This is third-and-28! Raymond pops forward, the ball goes through his hands — what a new concept, a ball goes through a Lion defender’s hands! — and Jones catches it. He sees Raymond fall down behind him (I assume he’s laughing at this point) then shoots down the sidelines for 38 yards and a first down.

One play later, the Eagles score a touchdown.

From third-and-28?

“I was trying to make something happen,” Raymond said afterwards. “I was 95 percent there. I just missed the other 5 percent.”

Yeah. The part that required brains.

The faces change — except for one

Isn’t this the same sick story? The Lions blow a game they could have had, figuring they’ll make it up down the line. Hey. Guys. This is the line! Why not win a few early and take the pressure off late in the season?

Instead it’s the same old roller coaster. The Lions were outcoached, outblocked, outrushed and outcooled. They surrendered a 52-yard run to Ricky Watters on the first play, they threw an interception to kill their first drive, and they didn’t seem to wake up offensively until the fourth quarter.

“Maybe we should take the field three hours before game time,” Scott Mitchell said.

There’s a thought. At least they couldn’t fall behind.

How many times can we read this same postscript? Here was the quarterback, Mitchell — but it could be Erik Kramer or Eric Hipple — talking about a
“lack of consistency.”

Here was the defensive player, Luther Elliss — but it could be Chris Spielman or Jerry Ball — saying, “We need to watch the film and see mistakes we can correct.”

Here was the coach, Wayne Fontes — who could only be Wayne Fontes — saying, “There’s 13 games left. We’ve been here before.”

That’s right, Wayne. And we didn’t enjoy it the last time, either.

You want to know the difference between the Lions and the Eagles — who smacked Detroit out of the playoffs last year? The Eagles were embarrassed in their previous game; they came out Sunday and won. That’s called
“improvement.”

The Lions won their last game; they came out Sunday and were embarrassed. That’s called “going backwards.”

It happens all the time. The defense plays well, then the defense goes soft. Mitchell is jumpy, then Mitchell calms down. The receivers have a big day, then the receivers are stopped.

I do want to acknowledge Johnnie Morton, who at least tried to offer a few metaphors in his postgame chat.

“We’re like a dam that just didn’t burst, you know? We’re like a bowler who gets the nine pins but can’t get the 10th. We’re like Mike Tyson, we need to come out attacking.”

How about, “We’re like Bob Hope. You’ve seen our act a hundred times.”

Somebody stop and ask for directions

Now, I know what some hair-ripping fans are saying this morning. How is it that two Lions throwaway quarterbacks, Erik Kramer and Rodney Peete, are starters on other teams and are more successful than they were in Detroit? Well. You figure it out. Peete had his best day ever as an Eagle (25-30, 284 yards) and as near as I could tell, Rodney doesn’t throw any faster, harder or more accurately than when he was in Detroit. But he did seem more confident, and he’s in an offense beautifully designed for his short-range talents. What changed since he left?

Can you say “coaching?” Can you say “game plan?”

Can you say “direction?” The Lions seem bent on a zigzag through the season. They lack the players coaches like Jimmy Johnson crave — playmakers, guys who come up big — and so they are forever just dropping interceptions, just missing passes, just losing games.

Perhaps cornerback Ryan McNeil said it best: “We’re supposed to play hard every week, not twice a month.”

Why don’t they? What’s the problem? When will they cash in on the talent we know they have?

Yeah, yeah. Anyone got any new questions?

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