The Detroit Lions' season has swung like a pendulum thus far. They are doorknob-dead one week, sly and smooth the next.
The Lions are 5-3, providing the distant footsteps behind the streaking Chicago Bears (8-0) in the NFC Central. At home in the Silverdome, Detroit is 4-0 and systematic. On the road, though, the Lions are 1-3 and plenty inept.
In truth, the Lions ought to be lying on the shrink's couch. They lost in grotesque, turnover-ravaged games to Indianapolis (14-6), Green Bay (43-10) and the Redskins (24-3), and then reversed over the past fortnight to defeat the two teams that appeared in last year's Super Bowl -- Miami and San Francisco.
So how do you figure it?
Detroit, a franchise with only two winning seasons in the past dozen years, became the first team to defeat Super Bowl teams in back-to-back home games. Close your eyes and you can see the Lions breaking away from their 4-11-1 record of 1984, being led by running back Billy Sims, quarterback Gary Danielson and Coach Monte Clark.
Look again, though. Clark was fired after last season and replaced by Darryl Rogers, formerly of Arizona State. Danielson was traded to Cleveland, and Eric Hipple took his spot in Detroit. Sims suffered a knee injury last season and likely won't return until next year, and now the neon sign in Motown flashes, "James Jones."
That's only fair. Although the passing game has battled inconsistency, Jones has been indomitable recently. He rushed 30 times for 116 yards in a 23-21 victory over the 49ers. On Sunday, he rushed for 114 yards on 36 carries (tying Sims' club mark for rushes in a game) to lead a 31-21 win over Miami.
Might any of the 52,845 in RFK Stadium on Oct. 13 -- the gathering that saw the Lions commit four turnovers and fail to score a touchdown against the Redskins -- have expected this same team to smoke the 49ers and Dolphins? Doubtful.
"At the beginning of the year, I think we had problems defining our character, especially on offense," Hipple said yesterday. "We lost our detail against the Redskins. We had three or four blown routes (by receivers) that could've been big plays. We had three or four missed blocking assignments.
"We weren't sure of ourselves three weeks ago. Against Green Bay, we ran helter-skelter."
"After last year, our players weren't sure how good they were. But in the last couple of weeks, our players have blended together and our coaching staff has had more harmony," said Paul Lanham, a former Redskins assistant who now coaches Lions receivers.
Jones, a George Rogers-type back who is now in his third year, suffered a thigh injury in the Lions' shocking 26-21 victory over Dallas in Week 2. Jones missed the next two weeks, then played poorly against the Redskins.
"We got a little scattered without him," Hipple said.
With Jones revved up, the turnovers have nearly vanished the past two weeks. Hipple didn't throw an interception in either game, and in his five years with Detroit, the Lions are 14-2 in games in which Hipple hasn't thrown an interception.
The Lions' defense shut down Miami's Dan Marino (247 yards, two interceptions) so thoroughly on Sunday that you no longer hear any Lions defender grousing about the fact that the new defensive coordinator, Wayne Fontes, changed one of the league's best four-man lines into a 3-4 alignment.
"The Bears are so swept away right now, it will be tough for us to catch them," said Hipple, who has nine scoring passes with seven interceptions, good enough to keep veteran Joe Ferguson (acquired from Buffalo in the offseason) in his shadows. "At this point, we have to look at the wild-card game."
Now that Rogers has pulled off a triple whammy you wouldn't expect from a rookie coach -- he has beaten Tom Landry, Bill Walsh and Don Shula -- Lanham says he told Rogers, "Darryl, I don't know what you've got to look forward to."
Rogers, looking ahead to Minnesota, told him, "Well, I still have to beat Bud Grant."