Kramer picture - and pass - perfect

JOHN EISENBERG

January 06, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

PONTIAC, Mich. -- Let it be noted that Erik Kramer had help on the day he pitched his perfect game. His protection was seamless. The Dallas Cowboys, determined not to let Barry Sanders beat them with his feet, left Kramer's receivers so open that, as Kramer said, "they didn't really cover anyone." Certainly a new way to play defense.

Still, Kramer was perfect. You think that's a joke. You didn't see the first half of yesterday's NFC playoff at the Silverdome. Kramer, who starts for the Detroit Lions -- in case you didn't know -- attempted 22 passes. Eighteen were caught. Three dropped. He missed one pass. OK, almost perfect.

The Lions were 11 points up on the Cowboys after those 30 minutes and well on their way to a 38-6 mugging of which Kramer was the centerpiece, throwing for 341 yards and three touchdowns. No interceptions. Nine incompletions, six dropped. Perfect. OK, almost perfect.

Afterward he stepped onto an interview platform with a big smile, small shoulders and the vaguely dazed look of a young man who couldn't believe what had happened.

"Everything seemed so crystal clear out there," he said. "From the first series on, I was kind of in that zone that you hope to be in, when everything works out."

(We interrupt this column to offer, as a service to hurried readers, a summary of the Cowboys' quarterbacking. Steve Beuerlein, the formerly unbeaten stand-in, got pulled in the second quarter. Troy Aikman, the well-known franchise- in-a-uniform, contributed no points and two fumbles. As Curly said to Moe: "Geez, I smell somethin' real bad.")

It made no sense. You could maybe figure the Lions beating the Cowboys, but not with Sanders rushing for 22 yards in the first 55 minutes. That would put too much pressure on Kramer, a thrice-cut former Calgary Stampeder, who had never thrown a regular-season, non-strike pass before this season.

He had guided the Lions to a 6-2 record after Rodney Peete was injured, but completed only 51 percent of his passes. The Cowboys were not impressed. They took their linebackers out of their pass coverage, leaving the defensive backs alone.

"They dared us to beat them passing," Lions coach Wayne Fontes said, "and we did."

Did they ever. In the first quarter, the cornerbacks stood 10 yards from scrimmage. The Lions' receivers ran their entire routes in front of coverage. The Lions needed five plays -- four passes -- to score a touchdown on their first possession.

It was so simple you figured the Cowboys had to change their plan. "If I was coaching, I would have," said split end Willie Green, who caught eight passes. But Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson stuck with his ban-Barry defense. And got seared.

Johnson out-coached Joe Gibbs and Mike Ditka during the six-game winning streak the Cowboys brought to the game, but he outsmarted himself here. He was the only one who saw the genius in refusing to pad his pass defense.

"I kept thinking they'd say, 'My God, let's back off a little,' but they never changed," Fontes said.

Johnson shrugged, explaining that his young pass defenders were a liability in any alignment. "Our strength is stopping the run," he said. "Detroit saw that on film and took advantage."

The Cowboys did succeed in smothering Sanders every time he touched the ball, but it was like burning down your house to prove the carpet is flammable.

"We came in at halftime and I looked at the stats and saw Barry had only four carries," Fontes said. "I went to him and asked how he was doing, and he said, 'I'm just fine, Coach.' I went back to the coaches and said, 'Let's keep passing.' "

Said Sanders: "We were up 11. We would have been stupid to change what we were doing."

Indeed, for all afternoon Kramer bore a startling resemblance to Joe Montana. He'd make a short drop, check option No. 1, go to No. 2 if needed, then No. 3 if needed. All within three or four seconds.

"It was simple to check the field and find who was open," he said. "There was no one in my face. The passing lanes were clear. I figured they'd start blitzing or something. They never did."

So yes, he had help. But he was still the perfect gamer, every spiral tight, every ball delivered on a line. For one day, at least, Erik Kramer was the best quarterback on Earth. The Redskins might -- probably will -- make him miserable next week, but he'll always have Dallas, which is darn sure better than being stuck in Calgary. Hopefully, someone taped it all for him.

"Fully awesome?" someone asked, parroting one of his quotes from earlier this season.

"Fully," he said with a laugh, and then: "Even more fully than before."

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