What is it with Detroit Lion coach Wayne Fontes? This is a guy
who shrugs and smiles when given a public ultimatum by his
owner: Win or walk the plank. This is a guy who responds to
barrage after barrage of heavy artillery from the media by
singing Christmas songs to his critics. This is someone from
whom his players have yet to hear a discouraging word.
"Wayne's the type of guy who's always trying to fire us up and
make us play better," Detroit wide receiver Herman Moore says.
"But then we go 3-6, and the press is killing us, and the owner
comes out and says, 'Wayne's going to be fired if we don't make
the playoffs.' So we come out to practice that week, and I see
Wayne standing off to the side looking worse than I'd ever seen
him. I go over and tell him, 'You're feeling down right now, so
for once in your life as a coach, don't worry about us. We're
going to turn it around. The players are going to rise to the
occasion and do it--for you.'"
And so they have. Since owner William Clay Ford's ultimatum, the
Lions have won six consecutive games, and Monday night they
clinched a playoff berth when the San Francisco 49ers defeated
the Minnesota Vikings. Detroit can win the NFC Central title if
it beats the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Saturday and if the Green
Bay Packers lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers the next day.
Strange team these Lions. Every November the players say to one
another, "Hey, this coach who's pretty easy on us is going to
get fired if we don't get our butts in gear." Then they get
their butts in gear. In Fontes's seven seasons of running this
periodically underachieving lot, Detroit has won only 34 of the
77 games it has played before Thanksgiving but 26 of the 39
games played on the holiday and thereafter.
"I tell guys in the locker room, 'Who knows what kind of coach
we'll get if Wayne goes?'" says wideout Brett Perriman. "Some
coaches are psychotic maniacs who kill you just to prove they're
in charge. I ask guys, 'Do you know how good we have it? Wayne's
a coach we love to play for. Don't blow it.'"
So the recurrent revival of the Lions can be interpreted as an
indictment of Fontes as much as it can be seen as an endorsement
of his coaching.
There are so many good stories on this team. There's an offense
that, if it can learn to handle the blitz, would scare all
potential playoff opponents, including the Dallas Cowboys and
the 49ers. There's the man who seems to have epoxy on his hands,
the 6'3" Moore, who lives in the long shadows of his NFC
brethren Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin, even though he has 1,581
yards in '95 and is just 10 catches short of breaking the
single-season reception record. There's his fiery sidekick,
Perriman. Moore and Perriman are the first receiving duo to
catch 100 balls each in an NFL season and to have a combined
2,934 receiving yards. There's the quarterback, Scott Mitchell,
the once controversial free-agent signee, finally paying some
very big dividends. There's the soul of the defense, linebacker
Chris Spielman, playing most of the season with a torn chest
muscle that swells and requires painful draining each week.
Then there's Fontes. For the third consecutive year, nearly
every reporter with a computer and every talk-show host with an
agenda began calling for his head in midseason. That didn't stop
Fontes from serenading the Detroit press corps with a few bars
of Frosty the Snowman a few weeks ago.
Can Fontes really be that upbeat, or down deep is he bitter
about the way he has been ripped? That question is posed in the
lobby of a Houston hotel before the Lions beat the Oilers 24-17
on Dec. 10. Fontes takes a step away, and he stops. "Am I
bitter?" he says. "Well ... I hear things. I read things. I know
what everybody's saying. But all I've ever said is, 'Let's play
the full season and see what happens.' You can't judge a team
after three games, or nine games.
"Look what we've done at the end of the year, with the season on
the line, since I've been the coach. Who's got a better record?
George Seifert? Marv Levy, maybe? Doesn't December count?"
Let's see. In regular-season games played on Thanksgiving Day
and after since 1989, only the 49ers' Seifert (29-6 after Monday
night's game) has a better record than Fontes (25-11). Levy of
the Buffalo Bills is back in the pack at 17-17. There may be a
more subtle reason that Fontes's team succeeds with the season
on the line than the fact that his players turn their intensity
up a notch to save his job. Compared with other NFL coaches
Fontes runs fairly easy practices, with few sessions in full
pads. This leaves the Lions softer than some foes in September.
But this approach also has Detroit fresh for strong December
One of the big reasons for this season's strong finish dates
back to a gutsy personnel call that Fontes and general manager
Chuck Schmidt made in 1994. Detroit has had its share of
mediocre quarterbacks--Eric Hipple, Erik Kramer, Dave Krieg,
Chuck Long, Rodney Peete and Andre Ware, among others, have all
started for the Lions since 1986. Fontes and Schmidt figured
Detroit couldn't win a Super Bowl with guys like that. So after
the 1993 season they pursued Mitchell, a 6'6", 230-pound free
agent who had started only seven NFL games, for the Miami
Dolphins, but who had shown considerable promise on those
occasions when he replaced Dan Marino. "Chuck, this guy's the
stallion we need to build around," Fontes told Schmidt. So the
Lions gave Mitchell $11 million over three years, including a $5
million signing bonus. Mitchell promptly dive-bombed in 1994,
completing a mere 48.4% of his passes and throwing more
interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10) before breaking a bone
in his right wrist in Week 10. Krieg replaced him and led the
Lions to last season's playoffs. Says Mitchell, "What hurt me
most was that never in my life, in anything I did, was I the
problem, the weak link. And while watching Dave lead us into the
playoffs, I felt I was the problem. But I've never been defeated
at anything in my life. This off-season I completely committed
myself to my job. I was going to be the quarterback Detroit
thought it got when it signed me."
In their 62 years the Lions hadn't had a quarterback throw as
many as 30 touchdown passes until Mitchell did so this year.
They last had the league's top-rated offense in 1936, but
they're No. 1 this year with a week to go. "I can't begin to
tell you how happy I am here now," Mitchell says.
He wouldn't have said that in mid-September. After three weeks
Detroit was 0-3, and its high-powered offense had a measly five
touchdowns. So the offense engineered a bloodless coup d'etat.
Several starters--including Mitchell, Moore and Perriman--met
after a Sept. 17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals and concluded
that the Lions were playing too many two-tight end and two-back
sets. They favored a three-wideout set (Perriman, Moore and
Johnnie Morton at receiver, Barry Sanders at running back and
either Rodney Holman or David Sloan at tight end).
"We brought [offensive coordinator] Tom Moore in," Herman Moore
says, "and we told him what we wanted to do." Tom Moore, who
helped run Pittsburgh's powerful offense of the late '70s, did
what any intelligent coach confronted with the combination of a
losing system and superb players should do: He bought into the
proposed changes. "I can listen," he says, "and I wasn't upset
by what they said. It's my responsibility to put our best 11 on
the field, and so we did." Morton was inserted into a prominent
third-receiver role and has since caught 37 passes, seven for
touchdowns. Mitchell concentrated on getting the ball to prime
targets Moore and Perriman, which meant fewer carries for
Sanders, and the emphasis on the two-tight end set was reduced.
Detroit scored 27 points on San Francisco and 38 on the
Cleveland Browns in the ensuing two games, and it has been
clicking more effectively ever since.
Surprisingly the Lions have turned their season around without
relying as heavily on the running game as they had in the past.
Detroit is throwing the ball on over 60% of its plays, third in
the league. Sanders has rushed for 1,452 yards and passed the
career 10,000-yard mark two weeks ago at the ripe old age of
27--but it's possible that Moore and Perriman will outgain him
this season. Perriman, a trash-talking feisty receiver, gives
Mitchell an excellent alternative to Moore. He had 36 balls
thrown at him in a recent two-game stretch. This list of
Mitchell's intended receivers on his first 13 throws against
Houston shows how conscious he is of keeping both receivers
involved: Moore, Perriman, Moore, Perriman, Moore, Perriman,
Moore, Moore, Perriman, Perriman, Moore, Perriman, Moore. Easy
to see, then, why Moore has 113 catches, Perriman 103. "Not in
my wildest dreams did I ever expect us to have an offensive
season like this," Perriman says.
Moore high-jumped 7'2 3/4" five years ago while a student at
Virginia, so no cornerback can disrupt the high balls Mitchell
routinely sends his way. His 210-pound frame seems sculpted from
stone, the better to take over-the-middle batterings. And what
hands. On TV, with his black-and-white gloves, Moore's hands
look a mile long. "Everybody tells me that," Moore says. "But
look." He holds his left hand out, fully extended, and a visitor
who's of average size places his right hand against Moore's.
Moore's fingers are a quarter inch shorter. "See. My hands are
actually small," he says. "The key thing is, my fingertips are
really strong. I was never taught to cradle the ball into my
body, like some receivers are. I was always taught to look it in
and catch it with my fingers."
While the Detroit offense has been productive since late
September, the defense has struggled. Some improvement has come
since halftime of the Lions' Nov. 12 game with Tampa Bay, after
the Bucs shredded Detroit for 258 first-half yards. The Lions
moved strong safety Bennie Blades closer to the line of
scrimmage and made run defense his primary job. They held Tampa
Bay to 43 second-half rushing yards, and their defense has been
Spielman, the perennial Detroit leader in tackles, tore a
pectoral muscle in the second quarter of the season opener. The
Lions consulted numerous surgeons and muscle specialists on how
to treat the tear and discussed whether Spielman could suffer
permanent damage by continuing to play. "The pain was one thing,
and there were times I was throwing my arm around like a wet
noodle," Spielman says. "But worse, I kept getting this
softball-sized lump under my arm, which was the blood and fluids
accumulating from the injury. They probably took 500, 600 cubic
centimeters of the stuff out of me this season."
Has the pain been worth it? Spielman scoffs. "When you sign on
for this deal, you know you're going to leave some of your body
parts out there on the field," he says.
So here Detroit comes again, roaring into January. The key to
its postseason will be Mitchell, who, depending on what teams
make the playoffs, could be the only NFC quarterback in the
postseason with no playoff experience. Facing the blitz clearly
unsettles him; he was an unimpressive 16 of 36 against Houston,
which blitzed on 90% of all passing downs. Walking off the field
after the win over the Oilers, Herman Moore was reminded that
Houston had just given future Lion foes a blueprint of how to
attack Detroit--blitz, blitz and blitz some more. "I know," Moore
To beat the Lions, says Houston coach Jeff Fisher, "you've got
to have two things: a physical left corner to play Herman Moore
in tight coverage and a blitz coming from everywhere to take
advantage of Mitchell's inexperience and Detroit's poor
"I don't think playoff football would be a big change for me,"
Mitchell says. "I mean, if you lose, it's over, right? That's
what we've been playing with here, every week, since the middle
of November. Same thing with playoff football. We've already
lived it. I've lived it."
Detroit owns three-point wins over San Francisco in 1995 and
Dallas in '94, so the Lions know they can play with anyone.
Historically they have not done so during the playoffs. The
Lions are 1-3 in the postseason under Fontes. Perhaps that will
change. If so, Fontes again will have walked the tightrope and,
this time, found safety in the NFL's promised land. But don't
count on it.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER Moore regularly leaves defenders empty-handed, which suits owner Ford and Fontes just fine. [Herman Moore catching touchdown pass against Houston Oilers]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER[See caption above--William Clay Ford and Wayne Fontes]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JOHN BIEVER Mitchell has been averaging 275 yards passing since Detroit added Morton to a three-receiver set. [Scott Mitchell; Johnnie Morton] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVERDespite a muscle pull in his chest, Spielman (hidden) can still put the arms on opposing backs. [Chris Spielman and teammate tackling Jacksonville Jaguar]