Sunday, August 26, 2012

With Stafford & Co., OK For Lions to Be Pass-Happy

Wayne Fontes, the moon-faced, chubby Lions coach from 20+ years ago, had been on the job for only a few months in early-1989 when he had a plan.

Fontes had taken over the Lions from Darryl Rogers, which was like taking over Japan after Hiroshima.

The Lions were a sickly, offensively-challenged platoon in 1988, when Rogers was given the ziggy in November and replaced with Fontes, his defensive coordinator.

It was Bill Ford, the owner, who levied the stinging indictment against Rogers after announcing his cashiering.
“We’re boring,” Ford complained to the media guys.

No one argued.

Fontes had five games with which to prove himself in 1988, the Lions 2-9 at the time of Rogers’ dismissal. 

Fontes was saddled with that tag of “interim,” which was usually code for “After the season, you’ll never see this chump again.”

But that didn’t stop Fontes from trying his hardest with his five-game contract.

He brought in former NFL quarterback Lynn Dickey to work with the offense and impart his pass-happy wisdom to Lions starting signal caller Rusty Hilger.

The Lions won two of their final five games, and even though both wins were over awful Green Bay, the Lions played the very good Bears very tough in Chicago, and it was all enough to show Ford that Fontes didn’t need the interim label any longer.

Fontes returned Ford’s generosity with a big old bear hug in front of the local TV cameras and ink-stained wretches.

Not long after being named the real coach of the Lions, Fontes went to work on that whole “boring” thing that his owner crabbed about in discussing Darryl Rogers.

First, Fontes drafted a running back, Barry Sanders from Oklahoma State. As good as Barry was in college, no one could have predicted the greatness that he would embody for the next 10 years.

His running back in place, Fontes went against NFL form and decided that he would build an offense not necessarily around the running game, but around the pass.

A strange idea, indeed, considering Fontes had the best running back on any college campus in America set to don the Honolulu Blue and Silver in 1989.

Undaunted, Fontes looked at the Houston Oilers, a pretty good NFL team, and became enamored with the Oilers’ offense, which placed one runner in the backfield, four receivers spread out, and which eschewed a tight end.

Fontes, a defensive coach to the core, thought through the prism of an opposing defensive coordinator. With someone as dynamic as Sanders in the backfield, what would be nightmarish?

So Fontes decided to copy the Oilers’ pass-happy offense, leaving Sanders to do his thing against defenses spread out to guard against all those pass receivers.

They called it the Run-n-Shoot, and while Sanders took care of the Run part, the Lions weren’t nearly as good at the Shoot.

Fontes had his receivers, but they weren’t exactly Pro Bowl in quality, like the Oilers had in Houston. And Fontes’ quarterback, rookie Rodney Peete, was no Warren Moon of Houston.

But Fontes tried. He did succeed on one point: the Lions weren’t boring any longer. Peete and the other QB, Bob Gagliano, flung the football all over the field, with various degrees of success. And Sanders was a one-man highlight reel; never before did fans ooh and ahh over a three-yard loss, as they did with Barry.

The Lions scored as never before, but their leaky defense turned many games into shootouts. Still, the Lions made the playoffs four out of five years between 1991 and 1995. They weren’t boring, that’s for sure.

The Lions ran various versions of the Run-n-Shoot for most of Fontes’ tenure as Lions coach (1988-96). Not only were the Lions not boring anymore, some folks even worried that they scored too fast, thus not giving the defense time to catch its breath.

The Lions under Fontes had a supreme running back and a few good receivers here and there but never could come up with “that” quarterback, the same old refrain four decades running.

Today’s Lions are just a few weeks away from Opening Sunday, 2012. They are the exact opposite of Fontes’ Barry Sanders teams.

The Lions of today are a premier passing unit, among the best in the league. And they have more question marks at running back than the Riddler’s costume.

In the Run-n-Shoot days of the 1990s, the Lions tried to be a high octane passing team, sometimes at the expense of their best weapon, Sanders.

If I was an opposing defensive coordinator back then, I’d have looked to the heavens and said thank you every time Sanders didn’t touch the football.

It’s called playing to your strength, no matter what the Pro Football Handbook might say about striking a balance between running and passing.

The football handbook people are wringing their hands over this year’s Lions. They look at the running game and worry that it can’t crank out enough yards to keep defenses honest.


With Matthew Stafford throwing and Calvin Johnson catching, plus all the other competent receivers on the roster, it really won’t matter if the Lions run the football well or not.

The Lions’ fortunes, make no question, will ride on Stafford’s golden arm and Johnson’s Velcro hands. They are the best QB/receiver tandem in the NFL, bar none.

Why force feed a cache of questionable running backs the football, just for the sake of laying claim to running and passing balance?

It makes no sense.

It makes no sense to suppress Stafford and Co., because great players make great plays, whether the other team is stacked to stop it or not.

The Lions ought to play to their strength. They ought not to worry so much about running the football.
In a perfect football world, you’d gain four yards on a first down running play, all game long. But life isn’t perfect, and neither is any football team.

The Wayne Fontes Detroit Lions force fed the Run-n-Shoot when they didn’t really have the proper personnel, other than the best running back on the planet.

The Lions of today would be foolish to run the football for the sake of running it, when they possess a passer like Stafford and receivers like Johnson, Nate Burleson, Titus Young and Brandon Pettigrew.

It makes no sense.

Sunday, August 05, 2012

Lions' Hanson Still Kicking After All These Years

It’s fitting, really, that the Detroit Lions, lovers of tumult for decades, should have stability at a position that doesn’t even really qualify as a football player.

Since Jimmy Carter was president, the Lions have employed two full-time place kickers. Two.

Eddie Murray arrived as a rookie in 1980, and 12 years later, Murray was usurped by Jason Hanson, a rookie from Washington State.

Today, Hanson is 42 years old and is about to begin his 21st season of sidewinding his right leg toward an oblong pigskin for the boys in Honolulu Blue and Silver.

Not that he’s a football player, any more than Henny Youngman was a violinist or Elvis Presley was an actor.

Hanson isn’t a football player, but in twisted irony that proves God has a sense of humor, he has been the most consistent of anyone wearing a Lions uniform since first suiting up in Chicago back in September 1992.

You want proof that Hanson isn’t a football player? Just look at his face.

With the exception of a hairline that has retreated more than the Italian Army, Hanson looks pretty much now as he did when he was a rookie 20 years ago.

A real football player, had he been able to survive in the NFL for two decades, would have facial skin as tough as a dime steak, a beard like sandpaper and would creak when he walks. He’d have more concussions than teeth.

Yet there Hanson is during Lions games and practices in his football costume, holding his helmet absently and sighing, acting like an adolescent bored at his grandmother’s house, and whether you choose to believe it or not, he’s a paid NFL player.

Hanson is not only not a football player; he’s an exception to the rule.

Few kickers in league history have enjoyed the job security that Hanson has since 1992 with the Lions.

More times than you can count, the shelf life of an NFL kicker is shorter than a gallon of milk. It’s the ultimate what have you done for me lately? job in sports. Kickers make hockey goalies look as entrenched as Supreme Court Justices.

A kicker can find himself in several training camps—in one month. He can be signed on a Thursday, flown in on a Friday, kicking in a game on Sunday and, if the wind doesn’t go his way or the laces aren’t spun just right or the snap is a little low, can be back in his hometown on Monday night, jobless yet again.

Have leg, will travel.

But not Jason Hanson.

Hanson not only has been the Lions’ kicker since 1992, he hasn’t had any serious competition for his job since then. The guys who have kicked in Hanson’s stead have done so only because injury has necessitated the Lions bringing in an understudy.

Even when Dave Rayner kicked for the Lions in 2010 and did a fine job filling in for the injured Hanson, who was then 40 years old, there wasn’t really any serious threat to Hanson’s job.

Usually, when the Lions have brought in a kicker during training camp, that guy’s job amounted to little more than giving Hanson a fellow kicker with whom to talk. By the end of camp, the other guy was sent packing, his chances of unseating Hanson about as good as you hitting the lotto.

It’s a great gig Hanson has had since 1992, so it’s no wonder that he’s in no hurry to give it up.

"I'm working so that my goal is, if I'm going to play, to show up and have them be like, 'He's the same',” Hanson told the Free Press’s Carlos Monarrez this week. “And if ever that day comes where it's not, then maybe I'll be fishing in the fall. But it's not going to be this year. And that's always just been my goal, to make sure I can still kick like I always have."

Let’s be clear—Hanson’s job security hasn’t been charity by the Lions. Kickers don’t stay in the league for 21 years, much less for the same team, unless they can kick the stuffing out of the football, with accuracy. Hanson has earned his keep.

And he has a message for those who think his leg has lost too much of its thump.

"I still have the distance we need, I think,” he told Monarrez. “(My length) won't limit us in any way. I can still hit the long ball when we need it."

He hit it last year, when Hanson connected on 5-of-7 from 50-plus yards, a 71.4 accuracy rating that put him in the top 10 in the league.

The problem with Hanson has been that there’s been too much Hanson.

Actually, you don’t mind seeing Hanson trotting onto the field, except that it’s too often been to kick field goals instead of extra points. That changed dramatically in 2011, when the Lions’ Silver Bullet offense emerged as one of the most lethal in the league.

Hanson kicked a lot of extra points last season—54 of them, by far a season high for him. It was the Year of the Anomaly.

Usually, Hanson has been the symbol of both the Lions’ ineptitude and his own success. The more the Lions offense has sputtered, the more we saw Hanson, kicking field goals. And the more he kicked field goals, the more we marveled at his consistency and cursed his teammates’ deficiencies.

For years during the Black Hole of the Matt Millen years, Lions fans looked at Hanson and saw the best player on the team—which is ironic because, as has been determined, he’s not a football player. No kicker truly is.

Now, with the offense finally coming around, maybe the Lions won’t need all those 50-plus-yard kicks. But Hanson doesn’t want to turn into some sort of short-yardage specialist, kicking style.

“I'd rather have them cut me than have them have me do that," he told Monarrez of being looked at as a short-distance kicker. "That's my attitude. If it came to that, I don't know, maybe I'd be like, 'Well, I can still kick under 45.' But I don't want any part of that.”

Spoken like a true football player—even if he isn’t one.