Friday, November 25, 2005

Thanks for giving so little

There's a Charles Rogers 'Wiz' joke in there somewhere

Coaches at college football powers have long made it a point to tell high school recruits: You sign with our school, you'll get to play on national TV. Getting on television is so important that smaller conferences -- including the MAC, WAC and Conference USA -- are playing games on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays just so ESPN can spackle the holes in its program schedule with the likes of Bowling Green and Boise State. TV exposure gives college players more opportunities to attract the NFL's attention (see: Ben Roethlisberger). But even kids with neither hopes nor dreams of going pro still get pumped up at the prospect of playing in front of (theoretically, at least) the whole country. Everyone wants to perform on the big stage.

It's the same way in the NFL. The fact that the players are already in the pros, have already "made it," doesn't make the lights of national TV any less bright or alluring. Earlier this year, when Jacksonville beat Cincinnati in a Sunday night nail-biter, Bengals receiver Chad Johnson was inconsolable. Voice cracking and tears running down his cheeks, he said in the locker room afterward, "This is the reason we don't get Sunday (night), Monday night games." Johnson's team had botched its chance to make a statement in prime time, and he was so torn up over it he could barely speak.

Every player wants to be in the nationally televised games. If you're really good (or if the networks were hoping you'd be), you play on Monday night, or in the featured doubleheader game. But Sunday night is good exposure, too, because it's the only game on. It's the same with the occasional Thursday night or Saturday afternoon game. And, of course, Thanksgiving.

If there's one advantage to being a member of the Detroit Lions as opposed to, say, the Arizona Cardinals or Cleveland Browns, it's that you are assured of playing at least one game a year on national TV: on Thanksgiving Day. What's more, you'll get to play that game at home, because the NFL traditionally schedules the Thanksgiving games in Detroit and Dallas. Regardless of whether the Lions are any good, you know that football fans around the country will be eagerly tuning in so they can tune out the relatives they have come hundreds of miles to see for that one day. If the Lions are going to be motivated to play their best for one game a year, it'll be on Thanksgiving.

Notice I said "if."

Detroit lost this year's Thanksgiving Classic to the Atlanta Falcons, 27-7, and as we're all fond of saying, the score wasn't nearly that close. The Lions didn't just lose to the Falcons on Thursday; they humiliated themselves. And they didn't just look like a bad football team; they demonstrated a level of dysfunction that left viewers startled.

Most egregious was the quarterback situation. The Lions' starting QB Thursday was fourth-year player Joey Harrington, who has long been a whipping boy in Detroit but who now is looking more like something out of classical tragedy with each passing week. Harrington began the 2005 season as the starter only because Jeff Garcia, whom everybody knew had been brought to Detroit to take the job away, broke his leg in the preseason. As soon as Garcia was healthy, Harrington was benched. A couple weeks ago, Garcia got hurt again -- because that's what 35-year-old journeyman quarterbacks do -- so Harrington was back as the starter. Got it? Don't get too comfortable.

On their first two plays from scrimmage, the Lions gained two first downs. On the third play, Harrington "threw an interception." We say it that way because that's how it shows up on the stat sheet. What happened on the field, however, was that his receiver, Roy Williams, fell down while running his route and thus wasn't in place to catch the ball. On the first play of the Lions' next possession, Harrington hit tight end Marcus Pollard right in the numbers, and he dropped the ball. A few plays later, Shawn Bryson fumbled. On the Lions' fourth series, Harrington's protection broke down completely, and he was sacked on two straight plays.

At this point it was late in the second quarter, and Atlanta was up 17-0. The Lions' offensive line was letting Falcons rushers hit Harrington on play after play, the receivers were dropping passes, the Detroit running game was going nowhere, the crowd was booing. And Lions coach Steve Mariucci pulled Harrington and sent in Garcia.

Immediately, the questions: If Garcia was healthy enough to play in the second quarter, why didn't Mariucci just start him? And why, as Fox reported, did the Detroit coaches wait until after Garcia came in to urge their receivers to step up their game? Because the entire Lions team dynamic is geared toward making Harrington a scapegoat. The starting pitcher -- Harrington -- gets the loss. The reliever -- Garcia, Mariucci's guy -- comes in to stanch the bleeding. When Garcia throws an interception to a defensive back and there's no receiver within 20 yards of the ball ... hey, he's just trying to "make something happen"! About being benched, Harrington said after the game:
"I've had that cloud hovering over me for, I don't know, as long as I can remember, so when I was replaced I guess I wasn't surprised. But what am I going to do?"
He knows the score. Though Harrington didn't look that bad against the Falcons, I can accept that he might not, in fact, be a very good quarterback. But what we learned Thursday is that it doesn't even matter. All season, NFL fans had been hearing shouts and whispers about how Harrington is the problem in Detroit. Then, when we finally got a chance to watch the Lions, we saw a quarterback set up to fail, and a coach -- an organization -- willing to define failure any way it needed to in order to make it stick to Harrington. No wonder he (allegedly) doesn't have the confidence of his teammates.

The Lions were just getting warmed up.

In the third quarter, leading 17-0 and pushing for another score, the Falcons faced 3rd and 1 at the Lions' 36. Now, on 3rd and 1, it's the job of the defense to prevent the opponent from gaining that one yard. If the offense picks up that one yard, it means the defense has lost the battle on that play. Further, on the 36 yard line, on the cusp of field-goal range, it's absolutely imperative that the defense come up with a stop. So when Falcons running back T.J. Duckett burst across the line for 4 yards and a first down, how would you expect the Lions defenders to react?

The Detroit player who tackled Duckett came out of the pile with a wide grin, howling "Woo!" and doing a little look-at-me dance to commemorate the hit he'd laid on the runner. He was celebrating. After giving up 4 yards on 3rd and 1. The next play, Michael Vick hit Alge Crumpler for a 32-yard TD, and Atlanta was up 24-0.

Flash forward to the fourth quarter. The Falcons were leading 27-0 and were playing soft defense, letting the Lions move the ball but keeping them inbounds to chew up the clock. It was clear to all that Detroit would not win this game. Most of the fans had gone home. From the Atlanta 31, Garcia threw over the middle to Williams, who was streaking toward the end zone. The ball was tipped, first by Williams, then by a defender, before Williams pulled it out of the air and scored. It really was a remarkable catch -- the result of amazing concentration on Williams' part -- but all it did was make the score 27-6. How would you expect Williams to react?

Williams strutted into the end zone, sat down in the lotus position and struck a pose with some little hand gesture that I didn't understand, but then again it wasn't intended for me. He was showboating. After closing the gap to only three touchdowns with less than 10 minutes to play.

You can't get much more damning than what we saw from the Lions in this game. What can you say about an organization that hangs its quarterback out to dry -- a quarterback who, for all his flaws, clearly is most frustrated by being unable to help his team win -- at the same time it allows players to celebrate when the other team gets a first down? What can you say about an organizational culture that would leave a player thinking it's all right to celebrate being down by 21 points?

Lions fans are hoping some good comes out of the Thanksgiving debacle. Perhaps now that the nation has seen just how bad things have gotten in Detroit, Lions owner Bill Ford will reconsider the five-year contract extension he just gave general manager Matt Millen. Maybe. But maybe Millen will just decide the team needs more weapons. Like the ones he's already brought in. Or a new coach. Like the ones he's already brought in.

The Super Bowl is coming to Detroit in a couple months. Oh, the irony.

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