After playing in a charity golf tournament one May afternoon,
Detroit coach Wayne Fontes autographs a football for a fan.
"This is a ball we used in the Philadelphia game," Fontes
deadpans, referring to the Lions' demoralizing 58-37 first-round
playoff loss last December.
"I'll bid a nickel," somebody says.
Fontes laughs louder than everyone else in the crowd.
A sense of humor is required to coach the Lions. The season
hasn't even started and already Fontes's job is on the line.
Though the coach has two years left on his contract, owner
William Clay Ford has said that if Detroit fails to get through
the first round of the playoffs, Fontes and his staff may not be
back in 1997.
"I'm like the big buck out there," says Fontes. "Everybody is
taking shots at him, but that big buck is still standing."
Fontes's head is always in season round these parts. Take the
Green Bay game last year, two days before Halloween. A fan
wearing a hooded black cloak and a skeleton mask sat holding a
sign that read WAYNE, IF YOU DON'T WIN, I'M COMING TO GET YOU.
The Lions won and Fontes sidestepped the grim reaper, at least
for that week. The following Sunday, Detroit lost to the Falcons
and Ford issued the decree that the 3-6 Lions must reach the
playoffs or Fontes would be fired. Detroit, the SPCA of football
teams, saved the big buck's hide by winning seven straight. The
Lions made it to the playoffs and Fontes got his reprieve.
It is a familiar story. At Thanksgiving of 1994, Fontes's job
was in jeopardy, and Detroit went 4-1 the rest of the season.
It's safe to assume the same scenario will play out this year:
The Lions will get off to a slow start; the owner will threaten
Fontes's livelihood; and somehow the team will find a way to
save its coach's job yet again. Just think: If Detroit had the
playoffs on its mind on another holiday--say, Labor Day--then
all of this could be avoided.
It would help matters if quarterback Scott Mitchell could set
his playoff alarm clock for September. Last year Mitchell
started off like ketchup in a bottle. He threw just five TD
passes in the first four games; in the last 12 games he threw 27.
When Barry Sanders runs for 1,500 yards, as he did last season,
and no one seems to notice, the Lions' passing game must really
be something special. In '95 wide receivers Herman Moore and
Brett Perriman combined for 231 receptions and 3,174 yards
receiving. Says Mitchell, "I think our offense has the potential
to have a much better season than we did a year ago."
Things are not quite so upbeat for Detroit's defense, where the
biggest concern is at safety. Free safety Willie Clay, who was
second in the NFL in interceptions, with eight, signed with the
Patriots in March. Replacing him is Van Malone, a 1994
second-round pick who has never started a game. Who will fill
the strong safety spot is anyone's guess. Bennie Blades, the
team's third-leading tackler last year, spent the spring
embroiled in a contentious contract dispute. The Lions wanted to
slash his salary from $1.69 million to $750,000 or less. If
Blades resisted the salary-cap maneuver, he would very likely be
cut, in which case rookie Ryan Stewart would see time at strong
"On paper we had tremendous losses," Fontes says of the
free-agent departures of Clay, tackle Lomas Brown, guard Doug
Widell and linebacker Chris Spielman. There may be a perpetual
storm cloud hovering over Fontes's head--even inside the domed
stadium--but he is always able to find that silver lining. "I'm
always very optimistic, and I think this will be a very good
football team," he says.
Then Fontes pats his midriff. "The word of the day is that the
big buck has lost weight," he says. "Now I'm Bambi, and
everybody likes Bambi. Nobody shoots at Bambi."
Fontes laughs louder than everyone around him. He has survived
another day in the big woods.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT TRINGALI JR./SPORTSCHROME COVER [REGIONAL] Lion King Barry Sanders carries Detroit's hopes for a crown
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Sanders is focused on gaining his eighth consecutive 1,000-yard season, an NFL record. [Barry Sanders]
BY THE NUMBERS
1995 Yards per Game (NFL rank in parentheses)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 109.6 (14) 272.5 (2) 382.1 (1)
DEFENSE 112.2 (18) 237.8 (23) 349.9 (23)
In Like a Lamb, Out Like a Lion
There have been 58 individuals in NFL history who have coached
at least 100 regular-season games. Wayne Fontes is the only one
whose teams have increased their pre-December winning percentage
by at least 200 points after Dec. 1.
Biggest Improvement in Winning Percentage in December
Games Pre-December Record Diff.
coached record after Dec. 1
Wayne Fontes 117 39-46-0 (.459) 22-10-0 (.688) +.229
Jack Pardee 164 63-66-0 (.488) 24-11-0 (.686) +.198
George Wilson 160 50-71-8 (.413) 18-13-0 (.581) +.168
Joe Kuharich 142 44-69-1 (.389) 14-12-2 (.538) +.149
Ron Meyer 104 37-40-0 (.481) 17-10-0 (.630) +.149
PLAYER TO WATCH
Fifth-round pick Kerwin Waldroup came out of nowhere, seemingly
went to college everywhere and will play anywhere on the Lions'
defensive line. In 1994 the 6'3", 260-pound linebacker started
five games at Michigan but lost his place in the lineup due to
an ankle injury. In the spring of '95 he transferred to
Tennessee State. That August he enrolled at Central State, an
NAIA school in Wilberforce, Ohio. With nine sacks the lineman
helped the Marauders win the national title. Waldroup will
primarily back up Tracy Scroggins at right end but will see spot
duty all along the line.
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP
Head coach: Wayne Fontes
QB Scott Mitchell 583 att. 346 comp. 59.3% 4,338 yds. 32 TDs
12 int. 92.3 rtg.
RB Barry Sanders 314 att. 1,500 yds. 11 TDs
RB Glyn Milburn [*] 49 att. 266 yds. 0 TDs
TE David Sloan 17 rec. 184 yds. 1 TD
WR Herman Moore 123 rec. 1,686 yds. 14 TDs
WR Brett Perriman 108 rec. 1,488 yds. 9 TDs
WR Johnnie Morton 44 rec. 590 yds. 8 TDs
LT Ray Roberts [*] 6'6" 308 lbs.
LG Mike Compton 6'6" 297 lbs.
C Kevin Glover 6'2" 282 lbs.
RG Jeff Hartings(R)[*] 6'3" 283 lbs.
RT Zefross Moss 6'6" 324 lbs.
PK Jason Hanson 48/48 XPs 28/34 FGs
LE Robert Porcher 5 sacks 0 fum. rec.
LT Luther Elliss 0 sacks 0 fum. rec.
RT Henry Thomas 10 1/2 sacks 2 fum. rec.
RE Tracy Scroggins 9 1/2 sacks 1 fum. rec.
OLB Antonio London 7 sacks 0 int.
MLB Michael Brooks [*] 1 sack 0 int.
OLB Reggie Brown(R)[*] 7 sacks 2 int.
CB Ryan McNeil 2 int. 0 sacks
SS Bennie Blades 1 int. 1 sack
FS Van Malone 1 int. 0 sacks
CB Corey Raymond 6 int. 2 sacks
P Mark Royals 57 punts .42.0 avg.
PR Glyn Milburn [*] 31 ret. 11.4 avg.
KR Glyn Milburn [*] 47 ret. 27.0 avg.
[*] New acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)