- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 8, 2001

PONTIAC, Mich. Heard the latest Detroit Lions joke?
Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Owen.
Owen who?
Owen 11.
So goes life for the winless, luckless Detroit Lions. Their 0-11 record makes them fodder for everybody's favorite punch line from Jay Leno to the neighborhood grocer as they try to avoid being every team's favorite punching bag.
The jokes pile up. Losses mount. The injury list gets longer by the game. And their position in the basement of the NFC Central gets deeper.
They left Chicago last Sunday with a 13-10 defeat. By Wednesday, two more players were on the injured reserve list. Quarterback Charlie Batch's right shoulder was separated in the third quarter. Defensive back Robert Bailey, a member of last season's Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, missed the Chicago game with a neck injury sustained Thanksgiving Day and went on injured reserve Tuesday.
The Lions will try for their first victory tomorrow at Tampa Bay, with rookie Mike McMahon making his first NFL start at quarterback against the revived Buccaneers.
Is that Owen 12 knocking?
Marty Mornhinweg, the Lions' first-year coach who was offensive coordinator in San Francisco the previous four years, bypassed veteran Ty Detmer in naming McMahon his starter. Mornhinweg and Lions president Matt Millen have been enamored of McMahon's raw physical ability since drafting him in the fifth round out of Rutgers.
It is symbolic of what has happened to the Lions this year that they are resting their hopes on an unproven player. McMahon has played in five games. In four, he saw spot duty as part of Mornhinweg's plan to give him some experience. In the fifth a 45-38 loss at Arizona McMahon played wide receiver on the final possession when injuries left the Lions with only two healthy players at the position.
"It's time for Mike," Mornhinweg said. "I like what Mike has done, up to this point. This is the time for him to go in, and let's see what he can do. We will expand some of the offense for him. You'll see us do some other type things for a movement quarterback. He's getting close. But really, a [rookie] quarterback in this league is never ready to play. You have to put them in. Every player in this league, but especially the quarterback, is either much better or much worse than they are in practice. So you must give them opportunities during games."
It was McMahon who led two fourth-quarter touchdown drives that nearly tied the game in a 29-27 loss to the Packers on Thanksgiving Day. He drove the Lions into position for Jason Hanson's failed attempt at a tying field goal last Sunday.
By playing McMahon, what do the Lions have to lose except five more games to become the only team in NFL history to go 0-16? The Tampa Bay Bucs were 0-14 as an expansion franchise in 1976. Their losing streak grew to an NFL-record 26 when they lost their first 12 games in 1977.
The prospect of going 0-16 is more than the Lions can bear.
"It hurts," fullback Cory Schlesinger said recently. "It seems like every year in the NFL, some team has to go through this kind of streak. It's really unfortunate we have to be going through it this year. I suppose people are making jokes of us and stuff. I suppose it's a national thing. Last year it was San Diego. This year it happens to be us."
The Lions have been blown out twice, 28-6 by Green Bay in the opener and 35-0 by St. Louis in the third game. Other than that, the games have been close. The Lions had chances to win but couldn't make the key play, or stop the opponent from making it.
They lost twice on field goals, 27-24 to Tennessee with 10 seconds left and 20-17 to Tampa Bay with four seconds left. The Bengals scored a fourth-quarter touchdown to win 31-27 and haven't won since.
A failed two-point conversion kept the game from going into overtime in the Thanksgiving Day loss to Green Bay. Hanson's third missed field goal, from 40 yards out with 21 seconds left, let the Bears escape with a win Sunday. Hanson is a 79.7 percent kicker for his 10-year career. In 1997, he missed only three of 29 attempts all year.
"We're breaking world records for losing close games," Mornhinweg said. "This is eight straight."
Said wide receiver Johnnie Morton after the Chicago game: "It's so discouraging. There's nothing funny about it. It just takes all the air out of you."
Nobody could have seen this kind of season coming. Last season a loss to Chicago in the final game left the Lions with a 9-7 record and out of the playoffs. Owner William Clay Ford was so upset that he hired Millen as president and CEO, precipitating a sweeping overhaul of the front office and coaching staff. Millen and Mornhinweg arrived with high hopes. They were quickly deflated. From the start of training camp, they had to deal with injuries to key players.
Safety Kurt Schulz and cornerback Bryant Westbrook, who combined for 13 interceptions last year, weren't available until well into the season. Schulz missed the first five games recovering from back surgery. Westbrook missed six games because of a ruptured left Achilles' sustained late last season and since has played sparingly as the nickel and dime back.
The injured reserve list gets longer by the day. Stephen Boyd, a Pro Bowl middle linebacker, has been out since the fourth game with a back injury. Defensive tackle Luther Elliss, a Pro Bowl player for two years, has missed two games with an elbow injury. Strong safety Ron Rice, the leader of the secondary, went out after nine games with a neck injury that left him momentarily paralyzed.
On offense, receivers Herman Moore and Germane Crowell are done for the year after combining for eight games and 27 catches. Bert Emanuel, signed as a free agent in midseason, has missed two games with a knee injury. Return specialist Desmond Howard hasn't played since the opening kickoff of the ninth game because of a bruised right shoulder.
Running back James Stewart missed four games with a sprained ankle. Tight end David Sloan has missed one game with a knee injury and isn't likely to return soon.
The Lions played the Bears last week with only three receivers in uniform. One was veteran Morton. The others were rookie Scotty Anderson, who dropped one touchdown pass and ran the wrong route on what should have been an easy TD catch, and Larry Foster, a rookie free agent from last year.
With Sloan out, the two tight ends were undrafted rookies, Stephen Trejo and John Waerig. Trejo was converted from linebacker to fullback at Arizona State; he was switched to tight end after training camp. Waerig was signed off the practice squad. Last Sunday's game was his first as a pro.
Finally, Batch much maligned by the front office as not being its quarterback of choice saw his season end when he was hammered on a blitz by Bears safety Mike Brown. Nobody blocked him of course.
Mornhinweg insists he is keeping an eye on the future and won't change his broad plan for the sake of winning one game. Starting McMahon is part of that plan.
"We'll do everything possible to put ourselves in position to win the game," he said. "But it's not about winning one game. Our goals and aspirations as a football team should be strong enough and high enough to get us through the tough times."

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