WITH THE LIONS, THE PRESENT ALWAYS LOOKS LIKE THE PAST

On a weekend when we impeached the president, lost a future speaker of the House and bombed a foreign country, it’s comforting to know that certain stories remain unchanged.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Detroit Lions.

On Sunday, the Lions played their last home game of 1998, and they closed the local show by once again promising to do better next year. Of course, they promised that for this year. You see how this repeats.

In Sunday’s mop-up game, the Lions had the leaders of the NFC West on the ropes. And true to form, they let them off. Thanks to two Christmas-wrapped interceptions, a weak offensive line, and a defense that can neither make big plays nor stop them, the Lions watched the Atlanta Falcons throw one touchdown over them and ram another right through them. A lead turned to a deficit. Victory turned to defeat. The crowd headed for the exits.

You see how this repeats.

“We threw interceptions into coverage, I mean, right into them,” said coach Bobby Ross, after the 24-17 loss. “That was not a real good decision.”

You mean someone decides things like that?

“We were also trying to play conservative,” Ross said. “It worked for three quarters.”

And football is four quarters.

You see how this repeats.

Plenty of troublesome areas

Now, Sunday’s loss means little except that the Lions will draft a bit higher in April. They are 5-10, out of the playoffs, and are, compared to last year, going backward under Ross. Still, as we prepare to put this season in the attic, let’s note certain things about the Lions that have not changed:

1) Barry Sanders is oxygen. You can’t count how many people stay with the Lions only because “we get to see Barry.” He is the one thing that keeps fans
— and networks — from ignoring this team altogether. He had a few runs Sunday that defied the imagination. Unfortunately, Sanders cannot win anything by himself. And he doesn’t. That hasn’t changed either.

As for the idea that Barry is being wasted in Detroit? Hey, what do you want Detroit fans to do about it? Sure, having Sanders on this franchise is like hanging the Mona Lisa in a subway station. But as long as it’s your subway station, you’ll keep it, right?

2) Quarterback is a problem. Wayne Fontes, Darryl Rogers, Bobby Ross. Lions coaches have problems with their quarterbacks. Or Lions quarterbacks have problems with their coaches. You see how this repeats.

So on Sunday, here was Charlie Batch, the future, in street clothes, with an injured back. And here was Scott Mitchell, the used-to-be-future, still hoping to break a sweat. And here was Frank Reich, the past, throwing interceptions. Forget this year. The Lions already have a quarterback problem next year. Is Batch the man? Who’s the backup? How do they unload Mitchell and his salary? Didn’t we discus all this a few years ago?

You see how this repeats.

3) Defense wins, and this defense doesn’t. When you look at the successful rebuilding jobs in New York under Bill Parcells, in Miami under Jimmy Johnson, even in New Orleans under Mike Ditka, you see that they build defense first. That’s the fastest way to get there. Maybe not the most exciting, but the fastest. Defense wins. And the Lions don’t. You see how this repeats.

Detroit’s defense has no consistency. Worse, it lacks big-playmaking. The key sack. The forced fumble. The big interception. Where are these things?

Example: On Sunday, with the score tied, Atlanta’s Chris Chandler overthrew his receiver and the ball hit Detroit defensive back Greg Jeffries in the hands. Oops. Bad spot. It went right through, and a big potential interception never materialized. Jeffries slapped his fists together — Dang! Shoulda had that! — but the difference between good teams and bad teams is the ones who say “Dang! Shoulda had that!” and the ones who go get it.

Lack of a killer instinct

4) Basics, basics, basics. The Lions don’t tackle particularly well. They don’t block particularly well. They draw way too many penalties — especially ill-timed ones.

A lot of that is coaching. Blowing basics means those basics are not being taught, not being stressed or not being remembered. The first two are on the coaching staff. The last is on the players. Where’s the killer instinct? “We played hard,” Ross said after Sunday’s loss. Yeah. Well. You’re supposed to play hard. That’s not enough. Kill or be killed. You see how this repeats.

5) The top brass hasn’t changed. After the game, owner William Clay Ford gave one of his annual group interviews. He said things needed to change, although he “didn’t have any specific plans.” After all, he said he knew some teams that were “stable a few years ago and are now in disarray.”

Then again, there are teams — Falcons, Jets and Vikings — that were in disarray a few years ago and now have surpassed the Lions. And the only constant through all these underperforming Lions’ teams is the ownership.

“We got off on the wrong foot this season,” Ford said, “and we stayed on the wrong foot.”

Check your shoes, too, Mr. Ford.

Ah well. With few surprising victories and a lot of depressing losses, another season dwindles to an end. Sunday was a microcosm of 1998. The Lions held the 13-2 Falcons to one touchdown for the first three quarters — then gave up two in the final period and lost. Yes, the Lions made a few nice plays. They also had a guy injured while making a fair catch! That’s a new one, even for me. And I’ve seen a lot of Lions games.

I’ll see plenty more. So will you. We will start thinking about next year this year, and try to forget this year next year, which we hope won’t be like all those other years.

You see how this repeats.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581 or E-mail albom@freepress.com

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