A Gray Day in Detroit
In preparing for Sunday's game against the Bears. Lion return specialist Mel Gray did everything he could not to think about the fact that he needed only five yards to set an NFL record for most kickoff-return yardage in a career. But no matter how hard he tried, somebody always brought up the record. The biggest distraction came right before he left the locker room for pregame warmups, when he was instructed to hand the ball to a representative of the Pro Football Hall of Fame immediately after breaking the mark.
That was all it took to derail Gray's concentration. He caught Chris Gardocki's opening kickoff, returned the ball up the left sideline for 21 yards to set the record, then promptly handed it to the Bears' Kevin Miniefield instead of to the Hall of Fame rep. Miniefield recovered Gray's fumble, and the Lion return man went to the sideline in a state of panic.
"I really had to pull myself together," admits Gray, who has now set three NFL records—for career kickoff returns (289), combined kickoff-and punt-return yardage (9,122) and kickoff-return yardage (7,092)—in the past four games. "It has been a lone time since I've fumbled an opening kickoff. This was one of the biggest games of the season and of my career. I couldn't let it get to me. I kept telling myself, You've got a lot of time left to redeem yourself."
He got his chance with 4:02 left in the third quarter, after a Bear field goal had cut Detroit's lead to 14-10. Gray took a Gardocki kick and raced right up the middle, all the way for a 102-yard touchdown that provided the winning margin in the Lions' 21-16 victory.
It was a must-win game for the Lions, who had lost three in a row. A loss would have put Detroit three games behind Minnesota and Chicago—and virtually out of the hunt in the Central race.
"I rate this return as my greatest," says Gray, a nine-year veteran. "Not only because it was my longest return, but because of the importance of the game."
Gray's electrifying performance helped cut some slack for special teams coach Steve Kazor, who has been under a microscope all season. The Lions admit that they miss special teams guru Frank Gansz, who left Detroit after five seasons to take a job with Atlanta, and their play reflects it. In a 24-14 loss to Tampa Bay on Oct. 2, Lion special teams units made six costly errors that handed the Bucs 17 points.
In Kazor's defense, coach Wayne Fontes seemed to deemphasize special teams play after Gansz left, moving the special teams' segment of practice to the end of the day, when players' concentration levels are down. Three weeks ago Kazor asked for more quality time. Fontes moved special teams to the middle of practice, and on Sunday the renewed emphasis paid off.
Even Gray has been subjected to media criticism. The talk was that at 33 he had lost a step. "I'm faster now than when I came into the league," insists Gray. "I just haven't gotten any seams to run through."
Gray sharpens his focus by juggling—tennis balls, baseballs, apples, even rolls of tape in the training room. "I've learned to see the ball in slow motion, which makes it easier to catch," Gray says. "On returns, it's so easy to be distracted. That's why a lot of returners can't do it consistently. When I focus on the ball, I don't realize what's going on around me. That's the key to my success."
Despite Bear coach Dave Wannstedt's best efforts, he can't seem to avoid a quarterback controversy.
Erik Kramer, the $8.1 million free agent whom Wannstedt hand-picked, now has a 1-3 record as a starter after Sunday's loss to the Lions. His backup, Steve Walsh, has a 3-0 record. And still Wannstedt insists that Kramer is better than Walsh, especially on deep passes. Never mind that Walsh threw only one interception in his three wins, while Kramer had three in Sunday's loss alone.
Although Kramer completed 29 of 48 passes for 309 yards and two touchdowns against his old team, his interceptions were costly, and he couldn't get the Bears on the board in the fourth quarter. After the game the Bears desperately tried to downplay the quarterback situation, and the results were almost comical. Receivers Curtis Conway and Jeff Graham both blamed themselves for the three interceptions. "I think there was something I could have done to prevent them," said Conway, the intended receiver on two deep passes that were picked off. "It wasn't Erik's fault. When the ball's in the air, it's my ball and nobody else's."
Said Graham, who had a pass meant for him intercepted at the goal line, "It was a situation where the ball was a little high, but I feel if it's near me, I should catch it. So blame it on me and not Erik."
Nice try, gents, but it probably won't work. Renewed calls for Walsh are sure to be heard this week, and with Kramer leaving the Silverdome on crutches after spraining his foot. Wannstedt may have the face-saving reason he needs to start Walsh on Halloween against Green Bay.
An Undervalued Buc
Deep down, Paul Gruber realizes he's the best left tackle in the Central Division, but he also knows that he'll probably never make the Pro Bowl. First of all, he plays for Tampa Bay, a franchise that has racked up an NFL-record 11-straight double-digit losing seasons and also has the dubious distinction of never having sent an offensive lineman to the Pro Bowl. And Gruber is too humble to promote himself.
But get a load of his stats this year: Gruber hasn't been flagged for a penalty in any of the Bucs' seven games, including Sunday's 41-16 loss to the 49ers, and he has given up only one sack. "Paul is a true professional," says Bob Wylie, the Buc offensive line coach. "His work habits are the best I've ever seen."
Gruber has been a starter from the day he joined the Bucs as a first-round pick in 1988. In fact, he had never missed a single snap, a streak of 4,850 plays, until he sat out last season's first live games in a contract dispute. He was all but traded to the Raiders, but the deal fell through when L.A. and Gruber couldn't reach an agreement. Eventually, Hugh Culverhouse, the late Tampa Bay owner, convinced Gruber to sign a four-year, $8.6 million deal with the Bucs. As the story goes, Gruber told Culverhouse, "I'm tired of losing," to which Culverhouse replied, "How the hell do you think I feel?"
Culverhouse assured Gruber the team was committed to bringing top draft picks and free agents to Tampa Bay, and that promise meant more to him than a Pro Bowl nod. "One of my goals is to make the Pro Bowl, but it's something I can't control." Gruber says. "If the Pro Bowl is what the Lord intends, so be it. Otherwise, I'll just play and give it all I've got."
Coming On Strong
Viking defensive end James Harris, whose interception at the line of scrimmage led to Minnesota's only touchdown in a 13-10 overtime win over Green Bay last Thursday, has always been a bit of a misfit on the football field. An undrafted free agent, Harris played tight end in his first season at Temple. He moved to outside linebacker his sophomore year, eventually setting a school record for blocked kicks, with nine. After signing with Seattle before the 1992 season, Harris was switched to nosetackle. He struggled and was cut before the season, but a few weeks later he was signed by the Vikings and put on the practice squad.
"I've confused a lot of coaches in my day," says the 6'4", 270-pound Harris. "In college NFL scouts said I was too small to play defensive line and too big to play linebacker. The question was whether I could stop the run."
He proved himself this year in a three-way battle in training camp to replace Pro Bowl end Chris Doleman, who had been traded to Atlanta. Harris's success was remarkable, considering that when he joined the Vikings, he didn't even know how to gel into a three-point stance.
"He had played so many positions, it was a matter of teaching him techniques and moves," recalls defensive line coach John Teerlinck, who gave Harris a spiral notebook and ordered him to record every mistake he made and every correction he was taught. Harris still diligently chronicles his play after practices and games. Teerlinck has also spent countless hours working on Harris's psyche, toughening him up mentally.
"You have to be tough, growing up where I did, in East St. Louis [Ill.], but it's a different type of toughness," Harris says. "You grow up always thinking that somebody's out to get you. I was fighting an inner battle with myself. I've learned how to channel that energy into getting to the quarterback."
To his frustration, Kramer (12) was heartily embraced by his old teammates on the Lions.
In a career of many happy returns, Gray liked the one against the Bears the best.