Lions snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

Detroit coach Jim Schwartz has taken criticism for the team’s lack of discipline and knack for losing close games.

Last season, three years removed from setting the NFL record for futility – going 0-16 for the season – the Detroit Lions did something they haven’t done since January 8, 2000: made the playoffs. Fans were ecstatic; hopes were high, and even though they lost, in convincing fashion to the New Orleans Saints, they seemed on the precipice of becoming a force with which to be reckoned in the NFC North.

But along came 2012, and the Lions, in the aftermath of their stunning loss to the Indianapolis Colts this Sunday past, have proven themselves, once again, to be pretenders instead of contenders.

Since 1964, the Lions have made the playoffs nine times, once playing for the NFC championship. They’ve won one playoff game, a 38-6 win over the Cowboys in 1992.

Since William Clay Ford took over the helm in 1964, the players have come and gone: Billy Simms, Barry Sanders, the latter arguably the greatest running back the game has ever known; Chuck Long, Rodney Peete, Andre Ware and Joey Harrington; Freddie Scott, Johnnie Morton and Herman Moore; Chris Spielman, Ray Crockett and Doug English, just to name a few from the last three decades.

Yes, the players have come and gone, nearly as quickly as the head coaches and their staffs. Like Wayne Fontes, head coach during part of Sanders’ tenure. Fontes scrapped the run-and-shoot offense because “it scored too quickly and left my defense out on the field too long.” The trouble with that strategy was that it left him with an impotent offense that still left his defense on the field for too much of the clock.

Marty Mornhinweg coached the Lions from 2001-2002. Remember his strategy to defer the sudden death overtime kickoff to the Bears because his defense had “held the Bears offense all day.” Except for the Bears’ last two possessions, which necessitated the OT. So, at the end of regulation, Mornhinweg put his defense, standing on the sideline doubled over sucking wind, back onto the field after they’d just given up the tying points.

Mornhinweg left town known as Moron-weg and has since gone on to success as offensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles.

George Wilson, Harry Gilmer, Joe Schmidt, Don McCafferty, Rick Forzano, Tommy Hudspeth, Monte Clark, Darryl Rogers, Bobby Ross, Gary Moeller, Steve Mariucci, Dick Jauron, and current Lions’ head coach, Jim Schwartz’s predecessor, Rod Marinelli, who coached the Lions to their season of perfection — no wins, sixteen losses — are the names of Lions head coaches since 1964. It reads like a list of Who’s Who Wasn’t.

Under Schwartz, quarterback Matthew Stafford was drafted. The following year, the Lions won two games. In 2010, they finished at 6-10, and fans were primed for 2011.

For the first time in his career, in 2011 Stafford played injury free, leading the Lions to the playoffs and, in defeat, fans were convinced that 2012 would be The Year of the Lion, the year the roar would finally be restored.

But the Lions have returned to their one bad habit: finding new ways to lose football games while perfecting the old ways: getting off to slow starts, squandering leads, taking dumb penalties.

Yesterday’s game against the Colts, losing on the final play of the game with four seconds left, only begs the question: what’s up with the Lions?

With ownership the one constant since 1964, can Ford’s commitment to winning be questioned?

He has yet to learn that a football franchise should not be run like an automobile company.

His firings seem perfunctory, to appease fan disgust and to sell tickets for next season.

Ford should take a page out of Mike Ilitch’s book of success. When the Tigers were losing 100 games a year, the seats at Comerica Park were empty. Ilitch opened his pocketbook, hired Dave Dombrowski to be his GM, and pretty much gave him a blank check to sign marquee players as well as a bona fide big league manager in Jim Leyland. The Tigers have been to the World Series twice and have been a contender for the Central title the last several years.

But the Lions continue to draw fans, and most home games at Ford Field are televised. Fans packed Ford Field for the final game in 2008 to root their team to make history, to keep their perfect season of futility intact, and they were rewarded.

Why should Ford do anything differently than he has since he took ownership? He’s making money during the regular season and apparently he’s happy with that.

Until the fans stop going altogether, forcing ownership to put on a better brand of football, it’ll be business as usual for the Detroit Lions. The alternative is that Ford sells the team. And that’s as likely to happen as the Lions making it to the Super Bowl before the end of the millennium.

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