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Luckless Lions Are Staring at History

The star-studded Detroit Red Wings are the best team in the NHL. The surprising Detroit Pistons stand atop the NBA’s Eastern Conference.

But to listen to the sports talk shows around here, you’d think there’s only one team in town: the winless Detroit Lions.

The other teams are having nice seasons. The Lions are radio topic No. 1 because they are three-fourths of the way to an all-time distinction. They’re only four games away from becoming the first 0-16 team in NFL history.

Actually, Coach Marty Mornhinweg believes the Lions could already be a candidate for the record books.

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“I haven’t put much thought into it, but I suspect that there hasn’t been many teams in the history of athletic events--you go Pop Warner, Little League baseball, college--I don’t believe there have been too many teams that have lost nine games in a row like we have, score-wise,” he said.

The 0-12 Lions haven’t lost by more than eight points since Week 3. Their average margin of defeat in the last nine games: 4.2 points.

That’s what’s so maddening about it all. Their game tapes don’t look like an old episode of “NFL Follies”. You can’t find them at the very bottom of every statistical category. They simply lose ... and lose ... and lose.

“People are like, ‘I don’t understand,’ ” linebacker Chris Claiborne said. “Well, understand. It’s real, right here. We haven’t put together a game to win a game.”

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Bad breaks? “I’m not a big believer in luck,” Mornhinweg said.

Inexperience? “The learning-how-to-win thing, I don’t believe that,” he said.

It simply comes down to “the execution thing” as Lion kicker Jason Hanson said. Not enough of the right plays at the right time.

Surprisingly, the Lions are holding up quite well. They mention just about every method of coping except for prayer, and President Matt Millen pretty much covered that one at the end of Sunday’s loss at Tampa Bay when he turned his palms and head skyward as if to ask, “Lord, what next?”

(By the way, Millen has officially replaced Washington Redskin owner Daniel Snyder as the most-seen NFL executive. Millen gets more air time now than when he was a TV color commentator.)

For Claiborne, the former USC star, joy comes from following the success of his favorite NBA team, the Lakers.

“Sixteen and two!” he said, reciting their record before Tuesday night’s game against Seattle. “Lakerrrrs!”

For running back James Stewart, relief comes from the smile of a 3-year-old girl named Alyssa.

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“When you go home and you see your little daughter’s face, all that wipes clean,” Stewart said. “That’s what keeps you going.

“She’s saying, ‘Daddy, let’s go play.’ Daddy ain’t got time to be sulking. She wants to play and she doesn’t understand what really has happened or whatever. I’ve got to understand that I’ve got to be there and be cheerful for her, because she has no idea.”

Maybe if Alyssa were a little older Stewart could explain that first-year coach Mornhinweg brought in a new staff, installed the West Coast offense, then couldn’t decide whether he wanted Charlie Batch or Ty Detmer to be the quarterback, and that after he finally settled on Batch, he got hurt and now the starter is rookie Mike McMahon.

He could tell her that the Lions led Arizona, 31-21, in the third quarter on Nov. 18, but lost, 45-38. He could tell her that the Lions scored two touchdowns in 67 seconds against Green Bay on Thanksgiving, but missed out on a two-point conversion that could have tied the game. He could tell her that Hanson (who has missed only three field goals the rest of the season) missed three against Chicago, including a 40-yarder that could have tied the score with 21 seconds remaining. He could tell her that Tampa Bay wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson hadn’t caught a touchdown pass all season until he hauled one in with 45 seconds remaining in Sunday’s game to give the Buccaneers a 15-12 victory.

Perhaps, even at her current age, Alyssa could understand the visual explanation offered by Claiborne. He stood by a team photo and pointed to wide receiver Herman Moore, then wide receiver Germane Crowell, then Batch, then cornerback Todd Lyght, then safety Ron Rice.

“Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt,” Claiborne said.

And that’s only half of the list.

I keep thinking about that team picture, taken earlier this season. Poor guys. There they are, the 2001 Lions, captured for all time, unaware they just posed for a portrait of futility. It’s like looking at a replay of a fight and seeing a boxer entering the ring, and you know this sucker’s about to get knocked out.

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Can they do the unprecedented? The Buccaneers went 0-14 in their first season, 1976, but that was before the NFL extended the schedule to 16 games.

“I can’t even fathom just finishing the season and being 0-16,” Stewart said. “I just can’t do it.”

But Hanson sees how it can happen. They were adjusting to the new coaches and played the toughest part of their schedule (at Green Bay, vs. St. Louis) when they were healthy. Now they’re injury-riddled and facing teams that don’t want to be the squad that lost to the Lions.

(They finish with Minnesota, at Pittsburgh, then home against Chicago and Dallas).

Mornhinweg doesn’t want to hear it. He cut off one question that began: “If you finish 0-16 ...

“I’m not answering that question, because it’s a hypothetical,” Mornhinweg said. “We don’t believe we’re going to do that.”

He did promise this: “We will not throw a pity party. That is a deflection. That is making excuses. We won’t do that.”

The Lions don’t even get the old consolation prizes for futility if they lose out. It’s the worst year to have the worst year.

They can’t get the No. 1 pick in the draft. It’s already allotted to the expansion Houston Texans. And they won’t get the benefit of a tilted schedule, which helped propel such recent rags-to-riches stories as the Rams and Baltimore Ravens. With the divisional realignment coming next year, the NFL will shift to a more balanced schedule that doesn’t take into account the team’s record from the previous season.

All the Lions can get is the tag of worst season ever.

“We can’t,” Claiborne said. “We can’t . Man. Let [the Buccaneers] have it. We don’t want it.”

But there is a bright side to a season’s worth of losing. Think about how much money the team is saving by not having to replenish the supply of footballs.

“I don’t know if you can give a game ball out,” Stewart said, “if you ain’t won no games.”

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J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com.


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