Mike Vandermause column: Lions unable to shake losing legacy

Dec. 8, 2012

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Coach Jim Schwartz had his Detroit Lions back in the playoffs last season, but his team is again finding ways to lose games. / AP


The Detroit Lions have managed to blow fourth-quarter leads in each of their last three games, which dropped them to a pathetic 4-8 record and out of contention in the NFC playoff race.

“We’re one play away from winning each of those games,” said Lions coach Jim Schwartz this past week in attempting to put a positive spin on his team’s misfortune. “We’ve just got to find a way to make that play during a critical time of the game.”

That, in a nutshell, is the story of the Lions’ existence.

It’s reminiscent of the Green Bay Packers in the late 1980s, when coach Lindy Infante infamously said that his team was just a few plays away from qualifying for the playoffs.

That’s a loser’s lament, and anyone worth his salt knows that just a play here or there usually determines the outcome of NFL games. Winners find ways to make those plays. Losers cry in their beer and are left to wonder what might have been.

Give Schwartz credit because the Lions haven’t quit on him this season despite their lousy record. But he hasn’t been able to escape the dark cloud that has cast a pall over the franchise for the better part of the last half-century.

When it was suggested this week that the Lions were perhaps just a few plays away from turning things around, one observer of the team retorted: “A few plays away? The Lions have been a few decades away!”

The Lions haven’t won a championship since 1957. They haven’t won a playoff game since 1991. They haven’t won a division title since 1993.

If they continue to bring up the rear in the NFC North this season, it will mark the ninth time in the last 12 years that they finish last or tied for last in the division.

Schwartz, at least, has helped elevate the Lions from their days as an NFL laughingstock under former general manager Matt Millen to a competitive outfit.

But his team still has a knack for screwing things up. There’s always something that gets in the way of success.

In a 24-20 loss to the Packers three weeks ago at Ford Field, the Lions held a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter and were driving for the game-sealing touchdown.

“We had a first-and-goal or a first-and-10 at the 11-yard line, whatever it was, with about 2 minutes to play,” recounted Schwartz. “If we can get a touchdown there, it pretty much salts the game away.”

“If” seems to be the operative word for the Lions franchise.

If quarterback Matthew Stafford didn’t throw a pick-six to the Packers’ M.D. Jennings in their last game …

If Schwartz didn’t bungle a Thanksgiving Day victory against Houston by throwing a boneheaded challenge flag …

If Jason Hanson doesn’t botch a 47-yard field goal in overtime against the Texans …

If the Lions don’t blow a 12-point lead in the final 2-plus minutes last week against Indianapolis and allow Andrew Luck to beat them on the final play …

Woulda, coulda, shoulda. The list of woes never ends for the Lions, who find new and exotic ways to lose football games.

“You look at our games,” said Schwartz, “I think we only have one loss that was by more than one score, and that was 10 points.”

Schwartz’s problem is that he’s playing football, not horseshoes. Close doesn’t mean a thing in the NFL. Whether you lose by one point or 100 points, it still shows up the same in the loss column.

The Lions’ penchant for losing is perhaps most glaring in their series against the Packers, who have won 21 of the last 24 games. Packers coach Mike McCarthy is 12-1 all-time against Detroit, with the only loss coming when quarterback Aaron Rodgers sustained a first-half concussion.

Incredibly, the Packers have won 21 straight times at home against the Lions, an NFL record dating to 1991, when Rodgers was 8 years old and Stafford was 3.

It’s yet another benchmark of the Lions’ futility.

“That streak's been going on a lot longer than most of us have been around,” said Stafford. “The only guy probably old enough to remember it all is Hanson.”

He was referring to Jason Hanson, the Lions’ 42-year-old kicker who was drafted four months after the Lions’ last victory in Green Bay.

Clearly, the Lions are capable of winning against the Packers — they should have beaten them three weeks ago.

But what the Lions should do, and what actually happens, are often two different things. Losing is what they do best, which is just the Lions being the Lions.

— mvandermause@greenbay pressgazette.com and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.

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