WHY DO LIONS LOSE? JUST ASK HARBAUGH

CHICAGO — What really hurts is this: I remember when Jim Harbaugh had pimples. I remember when he had long, shaggy hair. I remember when he first started playing quarterback for the Michigan Wolverines. And the time he broke his arm in his sophomore season and was lying in a hospital bed when Bo Schembechler came to visit. “Don’t forget me, coach,” he sobbed.

I remember when Harbaugh used to live off-campus, in a house with several of his teammates. I remember when he said things like, “I’m so jacked!”

And when Harbaugh finished Michigan and was drafted by the Bears — who, at the time, had a pretty famous quarterback named Jim McMahon — I remember when Harbaugh said, “One day, I’m gonna take over for him.” And all during those years, there were two consistencies: 1) Michigan was winning, and 2) the Lions were losing.

Obviously, some things never change. So on Sunday, I sit in the press box at Soldier Field and watch little Jimmy Harbaugh loft a perfect pass to Chicago running back Neal Anderson, who is streaking down the sideline — and Anderson catches it and escapes the last desperate flop of Detroit’s Ray Crockett and dances into the end zone. Touchdown! The Bears beat the Lions again, this time in overtime.

And I say to myself, this is really getting old.

It’s one thing for a team to have a losing season, or even a few losing seasons. It’s another thing to watch a kid grow from sneakers to tax returns
— then step on the field and pick up where NFL players before him left off, beating the Lions in a game the Lions should have won.

I mean, next thing you know, Doogie Howser will be slicing apart this defense. Another Detroit tragedy

And when that happens, no doubt, the Lions’ coach — whomever he may be — will sigh and say, “This program is getting better. We gave a great effort. We’re almost there. I truly believe that.”

Which is, oddly enough, what Wayne Fontes said after Sunday’s depressing 23-17 loss at Soldier Field, a game the Lions gave away at least three times and kept getting back. In some ways, of course, Fontes is right. The Lions did play well. Just not well enough to win. It is the story of this organization, which plays itself out like some Shakespearean tragedy.

Take, for example, the fourth quarter, the Lions leading, 17-14. At last, it seems, the angels are smiling on Bob Gagliano, the veteran backup, who is engineering a beautiful drive, chewing up the clock, five minutes, six minutes. And what happens? Deep in Chicago territory, Gagliano drops back — and throws an interception.

The angels sigh.

Wait. Another chance. Chicago ties the score in regulation, 17-17, but the Lions get the ball first in overtime. And again, Gagliano steers them downfield. This time, they reach the Chicago 17. Out trots Eddie Murray for what should be the easy winning kick. Instead — trying to compensate for the wind, he says — he hooks it left. No good.

The angels moan.

Wait. One more chance. The Lions’ defense, playing a good game, tries desperately to force Chicago to turn the ball back over. Third-and-one. Chicago gets four. Third-and-six. Chicago gets seven. And then that pass, from Harbaugh to Anderson. “I didn’t even see it,” Harbaugh said afterward. “I was on my back. But I heard the crowd and I figured, ‘Whoa, touchdown.’ “

Whoa. Touchdown.

The angels fly away. Getting better? Maybe

In the Lions’ locker room, it was the usual maudlin scene. Everyone had a quiet explanation. The interception, Gagliano said, was made by a defender
“who looked like he was coming in.” The touchdown pass, Crockett said, “was good execution on their part.” The losing season, Fontes said, “is part of what a young team goes through.”

And across the tunnel stood Harbaugh, the kid who not so long ago was playing ZZ Top records and sticking bumper stickers on his car. And here he was, surrounded by reporters and well-wishers, and he smiled broadly at the whoops and hollers of his victorious teammates.

“Why is it that your team had a bad season last year, but bounced back,” I asked, “while the Lions stayed pretty much where they were?”

“Well,” he said, looking for the mature answer, “I think it has something to do with the players. And a lot to do with the tradition.”

Jim, you said a mouthful. In Chicago, under coach Mike Ditka, winning has come to be expected. A lost game, a losing season, is intolerable. “We must get back to winning,” they say, and they know what it feels like. So, despite finishing behind Detroit in the standings last year, the Bears, on Sunday, clinched the division.

The Lions, meanwhile, devoid of experience, tumble from week to week, groping for the light switch marked “How to Win.” They hope for victory; they don’t demand it. That’s the difference.

Enough. Quite frankly, I am tired of beating up on the Lions. They’re nice guys and, in a lot of ways, I feel sorry for them. We all know their problems. For this week, anyhow, let’s suspend logic and assume Fontes is at least partly right, and, eventually, this team will turn around. I have but one request:

Do it before Elvis Grbac grows up.

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