In Detroit, all three Lions quarterbacks despise Fontes, who is only the coach

September 28, 1993|By Mitch Albom | Mitch Albom,Detroit Free Press

PONTIAC, Mich. -- They don't resent each other, and they don't resent the media. They resent the coach. Let's get that straight. Andre Ware, Rodney Peete and Erik Kramer, the three quarterbacks on this odd little merry-go-round in silver and blue stretch uniforms. Point the finger at one man: Detroit Lions coach Wayne Fontes.

In this way, they are no different than most American workers. They blame the boss.

And, like most workers, they have to bite their tongue and keep it to themselves.

Andre Ware played all day Sunday in the win over Phoenix at the Silverdome. He was not bad, but not great.

He missed a lot of reads for a starting NFL quarterback, and he got away with some truly dangerous passes. And you wish he would hit more receivers in stride instead of making them jump. But he did throw a nice touchdown pass -- two, if you count the one that was called back -- and in a couple of critical situations he looked off the first receiver, found the second and drilled it.

On third down late in the game, he took a crushing hit from linebacker David Braxton, who nearly separated Ware's upper and lower intestines, and still delivered a first-down strike to Herman Moore. You mature on plays like that.

But when the game was over and the Lions had won, Fontes deliberately hedged on next week's starter, saying, "Talk to me Wednesday," then joked, "It'll give you guys something to write about."

And when Ware came in and heard that, he snarled, "What are you gonna do, have a quarterback tryout every week?"

Apparently, yes. That's the way Fontes wants it. Ware would, at times, like to bite Fontes' head off, and so would Rodney Peete, the former starter, who dressed quickly in the locker room Sunday after being demoted to "third quarterback" status, which means you only play if the Serbs and the Croats shake hands.

"Are you healthy?" Peete was asked.

"I'm fine. I could have played," he said.

"What do you think will happen next?"

He rolled his eyes. "Around here? I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea."

So that's two angry quarterbacks. The third, Erik Kramer, is still trying to get over the mistaken message left on his answering machine last week by William Clay Ford, the Lions' owner. Ford thought he was calling Ware when he left these words: "Andre, give me a call, I've got good news."

What was that all about? Kramer, by the way, is the voice on his own machine, and, believe me, he sounds nothing like Ware. Which only goes to show you how out in left field the owner is when it comes to personnel on his team.

"He thought he was dialing 1-800-QUARTERBACK," Kramer said.

That's kind of how it works, isn't it? This week-by-week thing might be Fontes' idea of what's best -- I have stopped trying to figure out Wayne, who is a wonderfully nice man, but has this boomerang way of coaching; if you stand still long enough he'll come back to the same idea all over again -- and yet, he's losing his quarterbacks.

They gripe about him. They roll their eyes. All in private, of course. But the result is little confidence between the two most critical positions in the franchise, coach and quarterback.

I cannot think of a big-time winning football team with this problem. The 49ers, with Walsh and Montana, the old Cowboys with Landry and Staubach -- an unshakeable relationship between coach and quarterback has always been the ground floor of great teams.

Here, in Detroit -- and this has been going on for three years -- we have Fontes again saying, "I'll look at the tape and make a decision."

And Ware says "I'm the guy."

And Peete says "I thought I was the guy."

And Kramer says, "Mister Ford?"

There are no bad quarterbacks here. And there are no superstars. That's part of the problem. Given the right blocking and play calling, they can all look good. Or, failing that, they can all look bad.

Peete's frustration is obvious: He's the incumbent, the leader. He's done well at times. After the Saints harassed and injured him last week, Fontes defended Peete angrily, saying, "He was running for his life," and "What do you want from the guy?"

Then Wayne benched him.

Meanwhile, you have Ware's frustration. Since seventh grade, he has been first-string quarterback. In high school, they couldn't wait for him. In college, he had barely registered for his freshman classes before winning the job. Now he comes to Detroit and sits the better part of three years. I asked him Sunday how much of Andre Ware's potential we have seen since he put on a Lions uniform.

"About 30 percent," he said.

You try operating at 30 percent for three years and see how chippy you feel.

Will he get another chance? Who knows? This is Fontes' team. Fontes and Ford can juggle and dial all the wrong numbers all they want. They are winning, for now. So they're happy.

But they're also losing. They're losing an important element of the quarterback position: attitude. When even your starter is cynical, you've got a problem.

And the men in charge created this one, all by themselves.

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