MINNEAPOLIS — Football is surprise. That’s what coaches tell you. The more you can do something the other guys don’t expect, the more successful you will be. Kind of like war, without CNN.

So you can understand my mild concern when I flew into Minneapolis on Sunday, picked up the newspaper, and saw, in the local sports section, a diagram called “Lions’ Favorite Play.”

It was the draw play.

Hmm. Sure enough, five hours later, in the depressed Detroit locker room, after the Lions were stuffed like squash by the Minnesota defense, I asked several players what the game plan had been.

Take a guess.

“Our original idea was the draw,” Scott Mitchell said.

“We came in thinking draw,” Lomas Brown said. “We figured, draw, draw, draw, draw.”

Hey, guys. Try drawing something else. If a team’s game plan has already made the local newspaper, you can bet it’s in the opponent’s locker room.

Which may explain why the Lions gave Barry Sanders the football Sunday, and it was like giving grass to a lawn mower.

Boof! Sanders draw for no gain.

Boof! Sanders draw for minus-2 yards.

Boof! Sanders draw for minus-5.

Wherefore art thou, element of surprise? In the first half, Barry tried five times to go up the middle and wound up with minus-2 yards. I guess they read the papers.

The second half wasn’t much better. And when the game was over, Sanders had his least productive day in four years, 16 yards, with a bleak 1.3 per-carry average.

Now, wait. I know what you football geniuses are thinking. “If the Vikings are so geared up for the run, we should kill them with the pass!”

Yes. Well. In the immortal words of Ed McMahon:

Guess again, turf-breath. Why can’t Lions solve the Sanders puzzle?

The pass was stuffed nearly as often as the run. The Vikings were everywhere! Poor Scott Mitchell. He hasn’t seen that much purple since Barney the Dinosaur. Swarmed? By the end of the first quarter, Mitchell was on a first-name basis with the entire Minnesota defensive line. By halftime, he knew how many cavities they had.

By the fourth quarter, they were trying on his clothes.

“Are you sore?” someone asked Mitchell, after the six sacks and countless deckings he suffered in the Lions’ 10-3 loss.

“I will be tomorrow,” he said.

You can count on that. This game hurt to play, and it hurt to watch — mostly because the Vikings kept handing it back, as if winning so easily would be impolite.

Let’s face it. This thing should have been history in the first half — when the Lions lost a fumble, had a pass intercepted, missed a field goal, converted no third downs, suffered three sacks and drew five penalties. What was the score after all that? 10-0, Vikings?

“You can’t say we didn’t have our chances,” Wayne Fontes would admit.

No. You can say they didn’t take advantage of them. Running the ball into the middle of Minnesota’s defense is like trying to avoid a shark by swimming through it. The reason the Vikings stomped both the pass and the run is that the ball was often in the same place.

This is foolish. And it’s not a new problem. Barry Sanders is a tremendous asset, but using him correctly has been a Rubik’s Cube for Wayne Fontes and his assorted coaching staffs over the years. Is he a decoy? Is he your bread and butter?

I’ll tell you what he isn’t. He isn’t a guy who bowls over tacklers. Sanders needs slots, holes, open space to get started and then juke defenders out of their cleats. A draw play can do that — if they’re not expecting it.

When the newspapers print it, that’s a big “if.” There’s plenty of blame to go around

Now, before we come down too heavily on the running game, it is true every opponent tries to stuff Sanders. And, as Brown says, “We (the offensive line) have to accept the blame for what happened.” But championship-caliber teams know this: When one element is shut down, another must grab the baton.

Where was that on Sunday? Herman Moore blew the biggest chance, dropping a sure touchdown bomb from Mitchell in the third quarter. He had two steps on his defender, open field in front of him, the ball hit him in the hands — and bounced right out.

“A classic case of running before you have the ball,” Moore admitted.

Then there was Mitchell himself. Most of the time, he had defenders in his face, but sometimes he didn’t, and he overthrew receivers anyhow. When Sanders is going good, that’s survivable. When he isn’t — it isn’t.

Then there’s Jason Hanson, the kicker. Personally, I’d give him a Purple Heart after the tackle he made last week. But if he was healthy enough to play Sunday, he should have hit the 42- and 46-yarders he missed.

“I’m so frustrated,” he said. “My first kick, it was like junior high school. I didn’t know where it was going.”

If only the Vikings had said the same thing. Instead, they were waiting for the run as if it were a downtown bus, and teed off on the pass when the pass became the only option.

This shows preparation. The Vikings meet the Lions twice a year — and since Dennis Green took over, they have handled Sanders consistently, never allowing him more than 66 yards. The Lions’ brain trust needs to come up with something equally effective, and a little less . . . predictable.

After all, given what they always say about us newspaper guys, if we figured it out, how surprising could it be?

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