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A tough year in the Lions' den
PONTIAC, Mich. -- Athletes often talk about wanting to leave a mark, a lasting legacy.
The Detroit Lions know they could do that this season. They desperately don't want to.
They would rather just blend in among the handful of the worst teams in NFL history.
Detroit, which plays Minnesota at home today, is four losses away from being the first 0-16 team ever. Tampa Bay was 0-14 in 1976, two years before the league scheduled 16-game seasons.
"If we go 0-16, people are going to remember that," running back James Stewart said. "All our pictures will be up there with people saying, 'Well, this was that 0-16 team.' If we win one or two games, people are probably not going to remember."
While several players talked about being motivated not to go 0-16, first-year coach Marty Mornhinweg bristles when asked about it.
"I'm not answering that, because that's hypothetical," Mornhinweg said. "We don't believe we're going to do that. We have four games left and our aim is to win every single one of them."
A frustrated team president
Although team president Matt Millen has been on the job for just 11 months, he already feels the same pain as longtime Lions fans. They have seen Detroit win just one playoff game since taking the 1957 NFL Championship.
At the end of losses, television cameras have shown the anguish on the face of a man with four Super Bowl rings who left a lucrative broadcasting career to turn around a stagnant franchise.
Millen has screamed in agony, buried his face in his hands and, after last week's 15-12 loss at Tampa Bay, he looked to the sky with his palms facing up.
"They caught me right in the middle of asking God, 'Why are you doing this? I've been a good person,"' Millen said. "What I feel in my chest, you see on my face and that's OK. I can't hide my emotions, that's the way I am.
"But I wouldn't change my decision to get into this. I'd rather be here feeling the pain, because I have a chance to feel the joy."
After losing their first three games by an average of 22.3 points, they have set an NFL record by losing nine straight games by eight points or less and by an average of 4.2.
"The only similarity between a bad team and our team is our record," Millen said. "I've been around teams with good records that couldn't hang with us, but then again, we'd probably find a way to screw it up and lose in the end."
There are numerous mistakes -- some mental, some physical, some unbelievable -- to detail how the Lions have provided plenty of fodder for joke writers:
In the 31-26 loss to Minnesota, receiver Germane Crowell allowed the clock to expire by not getting out of bounds with 10 seconds left at Minnesota's 20. Mornhinweg then said: "We're not a smart football team, as you saw."
In the 27-24 loss against Tennessee, Brad Banta's snap for a field goal never made it off the ground, and another field-goal attempt was blocked and returned for a touchdown.
In the 31-27 loss to Cincinnati, Aaron Gibson was flagged for a personal foul after pouncing on a Bengal laying on the turf at the end of a play. That left Detroit with a third-and-28 with a couple minutes left. Mornhinweg pulled Gibson immediately and released the 1999 first-round pick two days later.
In the 20-17 loss vs. Tampa Bay, nobody covered Warrick Dunn on a 23-yard pass that set up a game-winning field goal with 4 seconds left.
In the 13-10 loss to Chicago, the usually reliable Jason Hanson missed three field goals, including a 40-yard kick with 20 seconds left.
In last week's loss at Tampa, the Bucs' Keyshawn Johnson caught his first TD pass of the season with 45 seconds left in the same game he set an NFL record for having the most receptions in a year without a score. It was rookie quarterback Mike McMahon's first start after Charlie Batch's season-ending shoulder injury.
"I would suspect that there aren't many teams in the history of athletic events -- Pop Warner, Little League Baseball or whatever -- that have lost nine games in a row like we have," Mornhinweg said.
While sitting in a Silverdome conference room, Millen pounded his fist on the table to make one point clear: Mornhinweg's job is not in jeopardy, regardless of how this season ends.
"I don't know if there's another coach in this league that could've kept things together as Marty has," Millen said.
Mornhinweg insists he hasn't even thought about job security.
"Crazy things happen in first years, but we've probably tripled or quadrupled those things," Mornhinweg said. "But you can see by the attitude of our players and the enthusiasm of our assistant coaches, that we're right on line.
"We're driving the train straight ahead, we're not making any detours."
Remarkably, Detroit's locker room is not filled with bickering or finger-pointing players. On and off the record, the Lions have not blamed teammates or the new regime of Millen and Mornhinweg for their woes.
"We're all 0-and-12," Stewart explained.
Linebacker Chris Claiborne stared at this year's team picture, which was put up last week in a stairway just above the locker room, and quietly shook his head from side to side.
"You look at all the talent and potential we had and you wonder what happened," Claiborne said. "Really, I don't think anybody has an answer for that. But we all know one thing, if we don't find a way to get at least one win, we'll be living with this year for the rest of our lives."