by | Nov 3, 2003 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

DET. 23 OAK 13

It had been eight weeks since the Lions won a football game, long enough for a Broadway play to open and close, long enough for a criminal trial to start and reach a verdict, long enough for farmers to harvest the crops, long enough for Ben and J.Lo to cancel, plan and cancel another wedding.

There were green leaves on the trees when the Lions last tasted victory, and the leaves now are red or gold or gone. Late summer has faded to mid-autumn. Warm has gone to chilly.

But finally, finally, on a Sunday afternoon, Steve Mariucci got to console the other coach, Joey Harrington had something to smile about, and the Lions were able to jog off the field without a feeling of dread, doom or despair.

“We were trying to decide who to introduce before this game, offense or defense,” Mariucci said after the 23-13 win over Oakland, “and we decided to introduce everybody — because whether you’d been with the team for 12 years or 24 hours, we needed you to contribute today.”

He wasn’t kidding about the 24 hours. Thanks to a rash of injuries that makes Sneezy the Dwarf look healthy, the Lions threw several new players onto the roster, including cornerback Doug Evans, who was signed on Friday.

Friday? Yep. Friday. He arrived on the red-eye from Seattle, took a shower, and was a starter Sunday. Never mind that he hadn’t played since early in the season, before the Seahawks cut him. Evans forced an early Jerry Rice fumble, then high-fived his new teammates.

“How many of these guys can you name?” Evans was asked later in the locker room.

He looked around. “Maybe five or six.”

“But you were high-fiving all of them.”

“That’s football,” he said, smiling. “When you do something good, you’re one of the guys.”

Hmm. Maybe they should hold open tryouts.

Victory turns on Cory’s moment

Of course, what Evans suggested is pretty much the mentality of the city today. The Lions did something good, they won a game, so everyone’s a little more embracing. Does it mean the Lions are much better at 2-6 than they were at 1-6? No. But you can’t start an avalanche without some snowflakes rolling downhill.

Never mind that the Lions’ key offensive play was a deep route for — sitting down? — Cory Schlesinger. The fullback who, in another era, might carry the nickname “Cement Head,” was the best receiver the Lions had Sunday. He got behind an Oakland defender — and I wouldn’t want to be that guy in the film session today — and Harrington hit him with a 33-yard touchdown pass, and happy days were here again, not that anyone can remember when they were here last.

“Usually, they throw to me in the flat, in the flat, in the flat, so when I go downfield, nobody’s expecting it,” Schlesinger said. “I knew I was in good position because I was seeing all these defenders’ backs.”

Right. Usually, he’s looking at 11 guys in front of him.

“Joey threw it, and all I said to myself was, ‘Catch it. Catch it.’ “

On such moments can a Sunday turn.

Harrington needed that. He needed Sunday, a victory. It wasn’t a thing of beauty, but at least he didn’t exit with a quarterback rating below the Mason-Dixon Line. So much of quarterbacking, like offense itself, is rhythmic, a groove, and Harrington — thanks to butterfingered receivers and his own jumpy motion — had all the rhythm of Orrin Hatch at a rap concert.

He has taken an unfair amount of blame for the Lions’ six-game losing streak. His receivers, once Charles Rogers went down, have been as reliable as Robert Downey Jr. And with no running game to threaten anyone, just how afraid are teams going to be of Harrington?

“This was much needed,” he admitted. “I’m not going to lie. It’s been difficult.”

Defense played its part

Same could be said for the defense, criticized and ineffective since the opening day victory over Arizona. On Sunday, the defense was mostly terrific, intercepting three passes and keeping the Oakland receiving corps out of the end zone, and that includes Rice, Tim Brown and Jerry Porter.

A note here on the Raiders: Take heart, Detroit. Oakland fans should be even angrier than you. Remember, last January, these same Raiders were in the Super Bowl. They were considered a model of offensive efficiency. Rich Gannon? Rice? Brown? Al Davis?

Look at them now. They lost to the Lions? They are 2-6? If someone, before the season, had offered Detroit the same record as the Raiders midway through, you don’t think the Lions would have jumped at it?

Fortunes change. Don’t misunderstand. It’s still over for the Lions this year. Halfway through the campaign, their Oreo cookie is two victories on the outside, and six white-flag defeats in the middle.

But you take what you can get.

“What about your new teammates?” someone asked Harrington.

“I didn’t get a chance to meet all of them,” he said, “but I’m sure I’ll introduce myself on Monday.”

Win first, say hello later.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Catch him signing copies of his new book, “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” at 7 p.m. tonight at Borders, 30995 Orchard Lake Road, Farmington Hills.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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