WHAT IF THE LIONS LISTENED TO THE FANS?

There could be 1,000 things in the world, and Terrell Owens and I would disagree on 999 of them. But one thing he said recently did strike a familiar chord – not only with me, but with every Lions fan out there.

Owens suggested that if Brett Favre were the Eagles quarterback, the team would be better, maybe even undefeated.

Now, he may be dead wrong. He may have insulted his actual quarterback, Donovan McNabb. But in saying what he did, Owens was only doing what fans here have been doing for years: Playing the what-if game.

And if the Lions want to understand why their fans get so upset, they should consider playing it, too.

For example:

•Coaching. In the time since Steve Mariucci took over the Lions, the following also has happened. John Fox, hired one year earlier than Mariucci, took the Panthers from a losing team to the Super Bowl. Jim Mora, hired one year later than Mariucci, transformed Atlanta from 5-11 the season before he arrived to a playoff team. Marvin Lewis, hired the same month as Mariucci, morphed the Bengals from the worst team in the league to the second-best record in the NFL.

And the Lions?

They won five games in 2003, six games in 2004 and three so far this year.

Ah, what if?

The skill positions might be more skilled

•Quarterback: The Lions hung the future on Joey Harrington, choosing him with the third pick of the 2002 draft. But since then, Drew Brees, a guy the Lions passed up the year before, has become a top-rated passer in San Diego. Ben Roethlisberger, whom the Lions passed on two years ago, nearly took Pittsburgh to the Super Bowl in his rookie season. Mark Brunell, acquired for a third-round draft pick, is starting and winning in Washington (even though he cost a lot). Even Arizona’s Josh McCown, who was drafted two rounds later than Harrington in 2002 – and has had a pretty mediocre career – is currently rated higher than Joey.

What if?

•Running backs: Although the Lions bragged about what a “steal” they got in Kevin Jones, trading up to use a first-round pick in 2004, here is some of what has happened with other running backs since then: Rudi Johnson, a fourth-round pick in 2001, has become a premier running back in Cincinnati. Clinton Portis, a second-round pick in 2002, is a star with Washington. Reuben Droughns, whom the Lions drafted and released, was a top-10 rusher in the NFL last year and is again this year. Even Dallas’ Julius Jones, drafted in the second round last year, has more yards (407) than Kevin Jones (381) – and Julius is injured.

•Receivers: You don’t really need statistics in this category, do you?

What if? What if? What if?

The offense would not be so offensive

•Offensive scheme. How many teams run the West Coast offense? Almost all of them? Why does it seem that the Lions, who have been working in it for years, never seem to get it to operate the way other teams do? Teams like Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia, St. Louis, all running some form of the West Coast offense, all rank high in total offense. Yet the Lions, with a coach straight out of the San Francisco/Bill Walsh system, seem to act as if they can’t read the instruction manual.

•Offensive line: Despite the presence of a first-round pick (Jeff Backus), a second-round pick (Dominic Raiola) and a big-name free agent (Damien Woody), the Lions’ line is where it usually is, in the middle of the pack. And when it comes to converting third downs – often a measure of how effective a line is when it needs to be – the Lions rank next to last in the NFC. Why is the promise here always better than the delivery?

We could go on. We could talk about the defense. We could talk about playmaking. We could talk about how a team like the New York Giants, with a worse record than Detroit two years ago, now has a decent shot at going to the Super Bowl. We could talk about how “too old to do it anymore” coaches like Bill Parcells, Dick Vermeil and Joe Gibbs all have better records than Mariucci.

We could mention that the Lions – this is amazing – are still waiting for their 20th victory since the start of the 2001 season.

In that same time, they have 53 losses.

Here’s the point. What Terrell Owens did in public, Lions fans have been doing privately for years. Maybe this will help the Lions understand the frustration they hear in the stands and on the airwaves.

After all, to paraphrase Bobby Kennedy, some fans see things as they are and say “Why?” Some fans see things that never were and say “Why not?”

And Lions fans say both.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com.

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