The biggest thing that coach Wayne Fontes of the Detroit Lions did this season was to cut his press conference workload by two thirds. Instead of having to answer questions about three quarterbacks every week, he'll only have to talk about one, 6'6" Scott Mitchell, whose seven starts for Miami last year were so noteworthy that he became the marquee name among 1994 free agents. And how were the Lions able to step forward and outbid everyone else for the free-agent quarterback? Cap management, the same strategy that got them in position to trade for linebacker Pat Swilling a year earlier.
In chief operating officer Chuck Schmidt they've got one of the best at that particular task. Last year, when the money didn't count against the cap, Schmidt spent a bundle redoing the numbers on the big-name guys: Barry Sanders. Chris Spielman, Herman Moore, Bennie Blades. This year the Lions unloaded Bill Fralic and Dave Richards, two high-priced, free-agent offensive linemen they had acquired in '93. The money they saved there provided funds for such newcomers as tight end Ron Hall, solid backup quarterback Dave Krieg, wideout Anthony Carter, inside linebacker Mike Johnson and, of course, Mitchell. See, it's not so tough when you plan ahead.
I sure like that Lion offense, with Mitchell, Moore and Sanders. The defense generally holds up well. What I don't like is the schedule, which they inherited along with their division title. So I'm calling them 8-8, but I just know they'll be better than that.
The Chicago Bears have known how to play defense for as long as I can remember, but, honestly, how long can those guys carry an offense that just keeps sinking lower and lower? The offense finished last in the NFL in '93. The total number of touchdown passes was seven, which is how many Dan Marino throws in two weeks.
The Bears addressed some of their most pressing needs in the free-agent market, but constructing a formidable attack is going to be a long-term deal. Erik Kramer, buried in Detroit's three-man rotation last season, replaces Jim Harbaugh at quarterback. Bear coach Dave Wannstedt remembers the way Kramer shredded his Cowboy defense in the playoffs three years ago, when Wannstedt was the Dallas coordinator. There are solid workmen among the other imports—tackle Andy Heck, backs Lewis Tillman and Merril Hoge, tight end Marv Cook, wideout Jeff Graham—but hardly a name there to make your pulse beat faster.
And as the offense slowly works its way back to the land of the living, the defense shows signs of slipping. First-round draft pick John Thierry, a defensive end from Alcorn Slate, is no Richard Dent, who left for San Francisco. Defensive tackle Steve McMichael, gone to Green Bay, still might have had some football left in him.
But Wannstedt's sound defensive background, plus warriors Dante Jones, a terrific middle linebacker, left end Trace Armstrong, cornerback Donnell Woolford and strong safety Shaun Gayle, all of whom play the game with a frenetic style, should keep the Bears in enough games to give them a shot.
I often wonder what it must be like to be a fan of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The club rewarded its loyal patrons this off-season by raising the top ticket price by 33%, from $30 to $40, which might be why only 23,000 season tickets were sold. Tampa fans cheered the salary cap because it meant the club would have no excuse not to spend the same kind of money other teams were shelling out. The Bucs will be paying $7.6 million for four years' worth of Jackie Harris, the most highly sought-after tight end in football, and $16.5 million for eight years of servitude from rookie quarterback Trent Dilfer, who might have opened the season as the starter rather than Craig Erickson if he hadn't departed the June workout program in a contract dispute.
The draft also brought a very popular local choice, running back Errict Rhett from the University of Florida; and just to show that he isn't kidding around with his attack, coach Sam Wyche even picked tackle Pete Pierson (fifth round)—the first offensive lineman Wyche has picked in three drafts with the Bucs.
The defense? Needs work. It finished 22nd in the league, in a division that doesn't pile up many yards; and it would have been much worse if not for heroic work by middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, the Bucs' first All-Pro since Lee Roy Selmon and Hugh Green in 1982.