Wayne Fontes, the moon-faced, chubby Lions coach from 20-plus 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 were 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 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 the 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 is this year’s Lions. They look at the running game and worry that it can’t crank out enough yards to keep defenses honest.
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.