The Lions offense was sputtering.
A jackrabbit, 7-2 start to the season had blown up after three straight losses, threatening to turn a promising year into a bitter pill to swallow.
And Lord knows the Lions had swallowed their share of those.
The culprit was mainly on one side of the football.
Quarterback Rodney Peete was having trouble leading scoring drives. The rebuilt offensive line was having trouble blocking.
But most of all, the play calling was suspect.
The great running back Barry Sanders was out with a minor knee injury, and that didn’t help matters.
So after an early-December, 13-0 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, head coach Wayne Fontes had seen enough.
This was 1993.
Fontes, so often portrayed as a lovable bear of a man or a buffoon—take your pick—was neither when he fired offensive coordinator Dan Henning.
Henning was hired by Fontes after the 12-4 1991 season, with the idea that Henning’s expertise in power football was needed to transition the Lions from a Run-and-Shoot circus to a more traditional, pro-set style offense.
Henning was a two-time failure as a head coach (Atlanta and San Diego) but he was well-respected as an offensive mind, having been the architect of some good offenses in Washington, where he was OC on two different occasions for Joe Gibbs (1981-82 and 1987-88, including two Super Bowl wins).
But it wasn’t working out in Detroit.
The 1992 Lions, in Henning’s first year, went 5-11—a huge disappointment following a year in which the team went to the NFC Championship game.
Despite possessing the world’s greatest running back at the time in Sanders, the Lions had trouble transitioning to Henning’s style, which had worked so well in Washington with the likes of John Riggins and George Rogers carrying the water in the running attack.
But Riggins and Rogers were power runners, and Barry…well, wasn’t. The offensive line needed to be revamped.
To give Henning more to work with, the Lions went out and signed three trenchmen during 1993 free agency—veteran offensive linemen Bill Fralic, David Richards and Dave Lutz.
But after the 7-2 start, which was mainly the bi-product of a stingy defense, the Lions dropped three straight games—scoring a total of 23 points.
Fontes fired Henning the day after the Vikings game, which dropped the Lions to 7-5 and put their playoff hopes on thin ice.
Fontes, no offensive genius he (his forte was coaching defense), handed the playbook to assistant Dave Levy, who at the time was more famous for driving his boss around in a golf cart during training camp than anything else.
Fontes also demoted Peete and made Erik Kramer the starting quarterback.
Pretty urgent, gutsy stuff.
“These were decisions I had to make that I think are best for this team,” Fontes said at the time. “We’ve been struggling on offense all year.”
The Lions responded by finishing the season 3-1 and winning their division.
A gut-wrenching loss to the Packers at the Silverdome was the Lions’ playoff reward.
But this isn’t about what the Lions did in the playoffs. How can it be, when the franchise has exactly one post-season win to its credit in 58 years?
This is about the boldness of Wayne Fontes.
Say what you will about Fontes, but his firing of Dan Henning and promotion of Erik Kramer saved, at least temporarily, the Lions season in 1993.
If you have perused the Internet and listened to sports talk radio over the past couple of days, the need for some Fontes-like urgency appears to be nigh.
Fans want OC Joe Lombardi’s head on a stick.
They want head coach Jim Caldwell to make like Fontes and give his coordinator the ziggy—that Detroit word for firing a coach.
The Lions offense is, like in 1993, sputtering along. And this year’s platoon doesn’t have Barry Sanders.
In 1993, the Lions had talented receivers like Herman Moore and Brett Perriman.
This year’s version has Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate.
Fontes had Peete and Kramer—decent QBs but neither possessed as much talent in their whole bodies as Matthew Stafford has in his right arm.
1993’s Lions had Sanders; this year’s squad has Joique Bell and Ameer Abdullah.
So it might be a wash, comparing 1993 to 2015. But the reality is that both offenses were/are guilty of underperforming.
Caldwell has been steadfast in his support of Lombardi, who is proving on a weekly basis that football genius isn’t necessarily hereditary.
The fans are practically begging Caldwell to at least snatch the playbook from OC Lombardi, if not fire him altogether.
Wayne Fontes saw a season crumbling around him in 1993. He had been on the precipice of the Super Bowl two years earlier and after a nosedive in 1992, Fontes didn’t want to miss out on another chance at playoff glory.
So despite a 7-5 record, Fontes blew things up at the Silverdome.
And it worked.
Jim Caldwell is a fine man of high character. I know it likely goes against his grain to embarrass Lombardi by taking over the play calling. And Caldwell doesn’t seem to have the demeanor to fire a coordinator in mid-season.
But it’s exactly this kind of “nice guy” stuff that the owner, Bill Ford, displayed for years, to a fault—particularly as he aged.
A younger Ford, in the 1960s and ’70s, made some bold moves based partly on impatience.
The older Ford was more content to hang his hat on loyalty and patience.
Of course, neither tack really worked, but those are the facts.
It doesn’t look like Jim Caldwell is going to do anything rash, even as his team flounders to move the football amid reports that other team’s defenses know what the Lions are going to do before they do it.
It’s a level-headed, even-keeled sort of approach.
But it may not be the wisest one.