PONTIAC, MICH. — The Detroit Lions, who have endured their share of quarterback controversies, have another unsettled situation this year at their key position.
But there is a twist to it. There is no debate about who should start. Rodney Peete solidified his position as the No. 1 quarterback by sitting out the final four preseason games and watching his competitors struggle.
The question this year, as the Lions prepare to open the season Sunday night against the Washington Redskins at RFK Stadium, is Peete's durability. And that backups Erik Kramer and Andre Ware lack experience.
"Maybe the most disappointing thing is we were not as consistent at the quarterback position as I thought we'd be," coach Wayne Fontes said. "Going in, I thought it would be a strong position for us."
Peete will start Sunday, but nobody can be sure how effective he will be -- or how long he will hold up. Peete hasn't played since the second quarter of Detroit's opening preseason game against the Denver Broncos, when he sustained a pulled groin muscle while throwing a touchdown pass to Jeff Campbell.
Peete, who was not hit on the play, missed two weeks of practice, then strained the muscles on his left side three days after returning. Peete didn't begin working with the team in full drills until Monday.
"I haven't had any setbacks," Peete said yesterday. "I feel pretty sharp. I really haven't lost too much as far as accuracy and sharpness."
L Peete doesn't expect the missed practice time to hamper him.
"It's not like I haven't been out there playing," Peete said. "I have been out there the last couple of years. I don't think that's too much of a factor going in."
Peete has been the Lions' No. 1 quarterback almost from his first day in training camp in 1989 -- only surrendering the job to injury. And injuries didn't take long to strike.
A damaged left knee in the final preseason game in 1989 forced him out of the first three games of the regular season. Reinjuries cost him five more starts that year.
Last year, a pair of injuries cost him five games. First it was a pulled hamstring in the second game, then a bruised left thigh in Detroit's 41-38 overtime loss to Washington at the Silverdome.
In all, Peete has missed 13 starts in two years.
He made dramatic improvement last year, throwing 13 touchdown passes with eight interceptions, compared to five touchdowns and nine interceptions his rookie year.
The string of injuries has prompted Fontes to wonder if Peete is too fragile to play regularly in the NFL.
"It's starting to bother me a little bit," Fontes said earlier in camp. "The guy's getting better every time he throws the ball. But he's having some freak things happen to him.
"It's been like this since he's been here."
As distressing has been Ware's lack of development.
It seemed like an ideal marriage when the Lions made him the seventh player taken in the 1990 draft. Ware came out of the University of Houston's run-and-shoot offense looking like the ideal man to run Detroit's version of the four-receiver offense. Ware was so excited that when it was announced he had been drafted by Detroit he shouted: "Run 'n Shoot City!"
But Ware has misfired badly so far.
He started only once last year and was yanked in the first half of a loss to Minnesota.
With Peete out this year, he had a chance to show that he is a legitimate contender for the No. 1 job. Instead, Ware's stock declined badly. He was unsure of himself, indecisive with his passes, and reluctant to throw downfield. Ware completed only 40 of 89 passes in the preseason for 407 yards -- a meager 4.6 yards per attempt.
Meanwhile Kramer, who bounced around since being bypassed
in the draft after his senior year at North Carolina State in 1986, has moved past Ware on the depth chart.
Ware took his demotion in stride.
"My spirits aren't down one inch," he said. "This is one stage, one day, in the long line of a long career. The only way to get better is to play your way better. I'm going to just keep doing the things I've been doing."
The promotion of Kramer, who came to the Lions last year, was a surprise. Even throwing three interceptions in the final preseason game against Pittsburgh didn't cost him the backup job.
"It's good to have some confidence from the people upstairs," he said. "I think coming into camp, I was just trying to solidify my position, play to make the squad. The winds have kind of been shifting around. I just want to keep a steady course."
A look at how the Detroit Lions quarterbacks fared in the preseason.
.. .. .. .. .. .. ..Comp.-
.. .. .. .. .. .. ..Att... .. .. %.. .. .. Yds... .. .. TD.. .. Int
Ware.. .. .. .. .. 40-89.. .. . 44.9.. .. ..407.. .. .. . 1.. .. . 2
Kramer.. .. .. .. . 30-60.. .. ..50.0.. .. ..435.. .. .. . 2.. .. . 4
Peete.. .. .. .. .. . 5-9.. .. ..55.6.. .. ..105.. .. .. .. 1.. .. . 0