Kramer's rise from third string is as unlikely as that of Lions

January 06, 1992|By Ron Reid | Ron Reid,Knight-Ridder

PONTIAC, Mich. -- Of all the quarterbacks who worked in the NFL this season -- with the possible exception of Pat Ryan -- no one seemed less likely to take his team to a landmark playoff victory than Erik Kramer of the Detroit Lions.

A playoff victory marked by three touchdown passes, a 76.3-percent completion rate and the team's highest point total of the season -- those numbers would have befitted Dan Marino or Joe Montana more than they did the 26-year-old Kramer.

But that was Kramer engineering the Lions' 38-6 conquest of the Dallas Cowboys at the Pontiac Silverdome yesterday. That was a youngster in his 10th NFL start riddling the Cowboys' secondary for 29 completions as the Lions won their first home playoff game in 35 seasons.

It was Kramer who proved the most impressive offensive performer in a game that put the Lions one victory away from their first trip to the Super Bowl.

And it hardly figured, considering Kramer's past and his lack of re nown.

When a TV reporter conducting a man-in-the-street interview yesterday asked several Detroiters the name of the Lions' starting quarterback, the answers included Tommy Kramer, Eric Hipple, Rodney Peete (who is on injured reserve), Andre Ware and, mostly, "I don't know."

Nobody identified the boyish-looking Kramer, who has the Lions

riding an implausible seven-game winning streak despite a burgeoning injury list and talent the opposition can't seem to take seriously.

A third-stringer when the season started, Kramer entered the NFL with dubious credentials, gaining entry only as a replacement player for Atlanta during the 1987 strike.

As a high school player in Southern California, he had impressed his coaching staff so much with his moxie, his knowledge of the game and his arm that he quickly was moved to defensive back.

But he was nothing if not stubborn. After high school, he became a quarterback at Pierce Junior College in California. There, he led his team to a victory in the 1985 Potato Bowl, shortly before he ended his collegiate career as ACC Player of the Year for North Carolina State, the team he quarterbacked in the Peach Bowl.

Kramer may be the only American quarterback drummed out of the Canadian Football League, cut lose as he was by Calgary after his completion rate never got above 40.2 percent.

Acquired by the Lions as a free agent, Kramer hung on and impressed coach Wayne Fontes -- a man with an affinity for the underdog -- with his passing.

On Oct. 27, when Peete suffered an Achilles' tendon injury in the Lions' 34-10 regular-season victory over Dallas, Kramer got his chance. He has made good on it, convincing the coaching staff that it is taking no risk with him at the helm, despite his lack of NFL experience.

"He's a gamer," Fontes said yesterday. "Once he gets going, he's the best pure passer we've got."

Yesterday, he got going early on, when he drove the Lions 68 yards to a touchdown on their first possession. He ended the march by drilling a 31-yard touchdown pass to Willie Green, and the game might have ended with the extra point, because Dallas would manage no more than two field goals.

To his credit, Fontes gave the game to Kramer, and the young quarterback made the most of it.

"I thought our game plan was good," Fontes said. "We practiced with the shades down all week and threw the ball all week long. We said, if they were going to give us the pass, we were going to take it."

They took it so often and so well that running back Barry Sanders, their finest weapon, carried the ball only four times in the first half and 12 times in the game.

"I kept thinking they would say, 'They're throwing. Let's back off a bit,' " Fontes said. "But they came up and gave us all those zones behind."

And that was all Kramer needed.

"Once we hit a couple in a row, all those jitters went away," he said, "although I didn't have too many to begin with. When I woke up, I felt [good] and ready to go to the stadium.

"I expected them to bring some more blitzes, but they played soft on the receivers and stacked up against the run."

And, as a result, Kramer had his finest day as a professional.

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