In 19 minutes, Lions' season leaves like a lamb.

JOHN EISENBERG

September 03, 1991|By JOHN EISENBERG

The Redskins were stacking touchdowns on the Detroit Lions on Sunday night at RFK Stadium, and I kept coming back to this phone conversation I'd had with Raymond Berry's wife in July.

I'd had reason to speak to Berry, who caught hundreds of Johnny Unitas' passes and later coached the New England Patriots, and tracked him down in Detroit, where he is now the Lions' quarterback coach. It was 9:30 on a weeknight. His wife answered the phone.

"You'll never get him here," she said. "He leaves at 6 in the morning and comes home at midnight."

Pro football coaches are notorious for their 18-hour workdays, of course. Even in the middle of July, with the baseball All-Star Game still a fresh memory and the beginning of the NFL season six weeks away, the coaches were already working on their burnout.

I kept coming back to that as the Redskins ran up a five-touchdown lead in the first half Sunday. I was wondering what it must feel like to watch hundreds of hours of work get blown into nothingness in 19 minutes.

The Lions had been practicing for this game for nearly two months, using the Redskins as motivation during a hellish battery of double practices and 18-hour workdays in the summer heat. The team's front office had been retooling the roster since December.

Everyone had worked hard. Raymond Berry hadn't seen his wife awake in months. The Lions came to RFK thinking they had a credible team. No one was picking them for the playoffs, but they figured they would prove people wrong. They had big ideas. Every team has big ideas before the season.

And then . . .

Nineteen minutes into it, all that practicing, planning and positive thinking was obsolete. Blown into nothingness. The Lions hadn't even completed a pass, and they were down, 28-0, their puny standing having been reaffirmed by one of the teams on the NFL muscle.

It wasn't even Labor Day yet, and you could scratch one team from Super Bowl contention.

Whew. And you thought Mike Dukakis went down in a hurry.

The Lions had excuses -- Barry Sanders was out with sore ribs and Rodney Peete was rusty -- but there were no excuses for the way they were pushed around in the line, the way they blew tackles, the way their offense seemed so unsystematic.

No, the Lions wouldn't admit it, but this was what happened to them Sunday night: They started their season with some big ideas and watched them get blown up within the hour, even before Jessica solved the murder over on CBS.

Me, I just kept thinking Raymond Berry could have spent more time with his wife had he known it would turn out like this. Why work so hard just to kick off the season and immediately land on the south end of a 45-0 loss that revealed about 45 weaknesses?

It happens to teams in every sport in every season, of course. It happened in 1991 to the Orioles, who left Florida thinking they would contend and knew by May they wouldn't. It is called the Big Lesson. You won't often see a team learn it faster than the Lions did Sunday.

Oh, they will come back and win some games this year; you can always find someone to beat, particularly at home, in a league with so many mediocre teams. But understand this: When you get a 45-spot put on you in the NFL, you're out of it. You're going nowhere.

I'm not ordinarily the kind who watches a car race for crashes, but I must admit that morbid curiosity carried me to the Lions' locker room after the game. I could have gone to see the Redskins, but there will be other days for that and the Lions were sitting down the hall coming to grips with the Big Lesson before Labor Day and, I admit, I wanted to see it.

"I don't think I have ever been blown out of a game faster than that," Peete said, "going all the way back through college and into high school. It's a stunner. Wow. I mean, boom, goodbye."

Naturally, the Lions weren't going to admit their big ideas had been blown into nothingness in 19 minutes. Many talked about coming back next week, which is what football players always say. Mercifully, a few souls at least circled the truth.

"This is the kind of game," linebacker Chris Spielman said, "that makes you re-evaluate yourself. Makes you think that maybe your estimation of yourself just wasn't right."

Safety Bennie Blades put it this way: "We better take some constructive criticism."

He looked at his watch. Almost midnight. Twenty minutes to Labor Day.

"You think about the season opener for months and months," Peete said. "Every day in training camp it was Redskins, Redskins, Redskins. To go through that and then go out and get absolutely leveled, man, just kicks you."

Raymond Berry was nowhere to be seen, off somewhere with the other coaches who had been working 18 hours a day since mid-July. All for this. For the right to sit in a smelly locker room trying to reconcile an 0-45 bruise. For the right to get your mediocrity shoved down your throat before summer ends. It had to be a rotten feeling.

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