WASHINGTON — The day began to die on the second play from scrimmage, when Erik Kramer was smothered and the ball squirted loose and the Redskins picked it up as if lifting a penny off the sidewalk. You knew then, somewhere in your stomach, that the theme of this chilly championship game would be simple and sad: The dream ends here.
That it did not end quickly, that the Lions found a few moments, found some spit to blow in the face of overwhelming odds, is both tribute to this remarkable team and quite likely its legacy. There was no joy in the start of this game and there was no joy in its lopsided finish. But like the season itself, there was something to be said for the middle.
Something good, I think.
Oh, it may be hard to see that right now. This morning, all you see is an image as unsettling as sour milk, Washington quarterback Mark Rypien standing in his backfield, alone as a city beggar, picking his receivers, playing his own personal game, throwing one bomb after another, six points, six points. The Lions never touched him. Compare that with Kramer, who had someone’s helmet in his mouth on every play, and you pretty much have this year’s NFC championship.
“Every time I looked up it seemed like there were one or two of them,” said a bedazzled Kramer, who was sacked four times and knocked down maybe a million more as the Lions evaporated one game shy of the Super Bowl, a 41-10 drubbing by the dominating Redskins.
“Will you be sore tomorrow?” he was asked.
“I’m sore right now.”
No doubt they all are. And yet, there were moments. A touchdown here. A drive there. The Lions gave the Redskins maybe half a game, which is half more than most people expected. And if that sounds like we’re making excuses for this team, just ask yourself if you believed the Lions would even survive this game nine days ago? The 1991 Lions probably never had enough to beat the Redskins, not in this stadium, not on this surface; it’s like trying to beat the devil in hell by burning him to death. But they got here. To the NFC championship game. That was surprise enough.
In the locker room after the game, they peeled off their uniforms for the last time. Chris Spielman left his on a while, his silver pants covered with the mud of defeat. “They’re the better team,” he mumbled. “They’re the better team . . .” Spielman, even more than most, had lusted for this game to be different from the season opener, which was lost to this same team in this same place, 45-0. Sunday was different.
Not different enough.
“They’re the better team — right now — and that’s hard for me to face. But it’s true and I know it. . . .”
The dream ends here. Surviving a bad beginning
And yet, for a few minutes, they had people wondering, didn’t they? Let’s face it: Against a great football team, the Lions began as badly as you possibly can begin a game — short of coming out without your clothes on. Their first ball was batted away, their second ball fumbled, their fifth dropped, their sixth intercepted. And yet somehow, come the second quarter, they found themselves trailing by just 10-7. Their Silver Stretch offense had created open receivers, Kramer got his balance back, threw a touchdown pass, Barry Sanders worked a little magic, and the defense held off a goal-line drive, forcing a field goal, and later forced a punt.
“That’s when I felt most optimistic,” said Sanders, who had 44 yards on 11 carries. “I knew we had played badly, but we were still in it.”
“When did you stop being optimistic?”
“Somewhere in the third quarter.”
Indeed. As it turns out, that second period was the apex of the Lions’ day. The Skins scored again, they took a 17-10 halftime lead, and then, in that third quarter, they came out and drove right downfield. Another field goal. 20-10. The Lions then embarked on their last meaningful march, clawing to the Washington 21-yard line, only to see an Eddie Murray field goal blocked by a guy named Jumpy Geathers. That was their last gasp. You could almost see the players slump under their shoulder pads. Rypien came out and uncorked a 45-yard bomb to Gary Clark that fell perfectly into his arms, touchdown, and the crowd went crazy. Somewhere in the parking lot, the Lions’ driver started the bus.
“You want to win this game so badly that when it starts to slip away, it really hurts you,” said Lomas Brown. “They were the better team today. We know that. But we got to within two games of the Super Bowl. Now we have to learn how to win those last two games.”
Which is a hell of a thing to say, when you think about it. Do you remember the last time the Lions lost a game? It was Nov. 10, against Tampa Bay. Do you remember what people were saying? “Same old Lions.” “Tampa Bay?”
“They’ll never be any good until they stop beating themselves.”
Guess what? They stopped. They shed their skin. They won the next game, and the next, seven in a row, and they came into Sunday with a lot of people thinking they had a chance to upset the Redskins, maybe the best team in the game right now.
You know what they call that?
They call it progress. Moments to remember
And it is that progress — after the sting fades — that the Lions should sleep with this winter. That, and an incredible pastiche of memories.
“What do you think you’ll remember most from this season?” someone asked Ray Crockett.
“I’ll remember a bunch of guys who came together for one cause . . . and I’ll remember one special guy who went down for that cause, trying to be the best.”
Message to Mike Utley: They went down trying. There’s no shame in that.
But then, Mike knows that already.
And so, the football season ends in Detroit. The two best teams, Washington and Buffalo, go on to the Super Bowl, and that is how is should be. And yet maybe the best way for Lions fans to remember this season is not by the pictures of Sunday’s collapse, but by the pictures leading up to it .
. . from the dejection after the first Washington loss — Spielman saying it was “my lowest moment in football” — to the elation after the Miami victory, when Spielman and the defense proved noble with a goal-line stand to win the game in the fourth quarter. There was the comeback over Minnesota, in which the Lions, for the first time in years, developed a closing kick, scoring 21 points in the fourth quarter. And how about the Thanksgiving Day coming of age, when they stole the ball from Chicago six times and stuffed the Bears and warned them there may just be a new king in the Central Division — and then proved it with a season-ending victory in the freeze of Buffalo’s Rich Stadium?
Can you ever forget the sight of Sanders, dancing off tacklers, stepping backwards, then bolting ahead for a 47-yard touchdown? Can you ever forget the sight of the Lions huddling at midfield, heads bowed in prayer, thumbs up, a sign to Utley, who sat in a wheelchair 2,000 miles away? Can you ever forget the sight of Jerry Ball in street clothes — about a mile’s worth of fabric — screaming his team on, or Rodney Peete or Mike Cofer, faces that will be back next year, healthy, and oh, the possibilities of that!
Isn’t that what this whole little adventure was about? Possibilities? Herman Moore, becoming a receiving force? Willie Green, earning the nickname
“Touchdown Machine?” The improved secondary of Crockett and Bennie Blades? Possibilities? They won’t understand this in other cities, where their football teams have gone to a playoff or two, maybe a championship, but in Detroit, the biggest miracle of the year was getting people to believe in pro football again. After that, everything’s gonna be easy.
“You know, I’m really gonna miss these guys,” said Brown, looking around the emptying room, the wet floor, the wads of used tape, the dirty towels, the now-ripped sign that read “GET MIKE HIS RING.”
“I mean, I miss the guys every year, the camaraderie, the Sunday mornings, all that. But this year, you know, somehow I’m gonna miss ’em more.”
And he packed and walked out, headed for the bus.
So it ends, a most remarkable little football season. There was a sign on the end zone in RFK Stadium, a sign that hung prominently in the corner, near where Willie Green caught that first touchdown pass. It read “Silence Of The Lions.”
Not anymore. For the first time in a long time, the Detroit Lions made noise, crazy, surprising, beautiful noise, that scooped up our city and took it one game shy of the football rainbow. Take that with you as you head into winter, the best part of this season, the middle.
Now. How long until September? THE GAME
The Lions fell behind early, and rallied to trail by a touchdown at halftime. They hung in until late in the third quarter, when Mark Rypien’s 45-yard touchdown pass to Gary Clark began the onslaught. Barry Sanders managed 44 yards rushing. THE SUPER BOWL
* WHO: Buffalo Bills (15-3) vs. Washington Redskins (16-2)
* WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 26, beginning about 6:18 p.m.
* WHERE: Minneapolis
* TV: CBS (Channel 2 in Detroit)
* THE FAVORITE: Washington, by six points THE FANS
In Detroit, they stayed glued to the TVs and radios — even as they were becoming parents. In Washington, the few Lions supporters were surrounded — but generally well-treated. Stories, Page 6A; photostory, Page 8E. IN SPORTS
* The Lions needed one more miracle, but the Redskins had too much — of everything.
* The Redskins had practiced the bomb play all week, but it fizzled. On Sunday, they had a feeling it would work. Complete coverage, Page 1D.