Usually, there's nothing more dreary than the fourth quarter of an exhibition game, but did you happen to catch the late action in the Aug. 20 game between the Chicago Bears and the Cardinals? There was some real drama there. Chicago quarterback Steve Walsh, who has been designated as Erik Kramer's backup for the season, threw a crucial interception, but he brought the second unit down the field twice against Buddy Ryan's first-team defense, putting the Bears in position to win the game both times, only to have them fall short on a fumble and a missed field goal.
Walsh's stats for the evening were worse than Kramer's. His mechanics are not as refined, his arm might not be as strong, and his paycheck is not as big as Kramer's, but there's something that excites you about the guy. Kramer was the Bears' big-money free-agent signee of 1994, and Walsh was picked up two months later after being cut by New Orleans.
But last season, when it came down to crunch time, Walsh was the man. His record as a starter was 8-3 in the regular season, Kramer's was 1-4, and Walsh got the start in both playoff games. Now he has been designated the backup again, and this, folks, is what is known as a quarterback controversy.
You run into all sorts of miserable weather in the NFC Central—blizzards, windstorms, monsoons—and you'd better have a quarterback with a strong arm. So in a way it makes sense that Kramer is the starter. I just want to see whether he will be in December.
I would like the Bears' passing attack better if the receivers didn't drop so many balls. I would like the running game better if the line opened up holes for its backs the way it once did for Walter Payton. Top draft pick Rashaan Salaam, the Heisman Trophy winner from Colorado, is an active halfback, although he showed a scary tendency to fumble in the preseason. But you've got to love the fullback, Raymont Harris, an ultimate gamer who hits the trifecta: he runs, he catches, he blocks.
On defense the Bears will be in good shape because coach Dave Wannstedt is one of those guys, like Buddy Ryan and Jeff Fisher, who you just know will always put a good group out there. It's in his blood. I get the feeling that, overall, Wannstedt's operation is a sound one, and what does this project to? A division title. Anything beyond that is a reach.
The Detroit Lions have solved the puzzle of how to get to the playoffs. They've made them three of the last four years, but now they've got to figure out how to move up a level, which is more elusive. They have to learn, for instance, how to win a playoff game on the road, which they haven't succeeded in doing since—are you ready for this?—1957.
Lion management has evidently studied that model of corporate football, the 49ers—an organization so attractive to the wandering free agent that he will take a lesser paycheck to wear the scarlet and gold. In the second week of camp Bill Ford Jr., vice chairman and son of the team owner, called 15 key Lion veterans in for lunch. If you have any gripes, he told them, if there's something that needs changing, come see me. Well, the veterans suggested, the team's home airport needs changing, from Metro to Pontiac-Oakland, 45 minutes closer to the Silverdome. Done, Ford replied. See, Detroit can be a nice place to work, too.
Now listen to this one. Not only did the Lions not raise ticket prices in the off-season, they actually lowered the charge on some 10,000 seats in the upper deck of the Silverdome, from $30 to $19.95. The plan is to make sure that every home game is sold out, so the local TV blackout will be lifted and the rest of the fans in Detroit can catch the action, too, thus building stronger community relations.
I don't know how this kinder, gentler approach will affect the team's won-lost record, but it sure makes me want to root for this club. More good things: Zefross Moss, a 324-pound right tackle pancake specialist, was brought in from Indianapolis to firm up an offensive line that was manhandled by Green Bay in the playoffs, the Packers holding Barry Sanders to minus one yard; former Lion quarterback Greg Landry was hired to personally tutor Scott Mitchell, Detroit's $11 million signal-caller, who had a case of the yips last year; the team acquired two new defensive linemen, Luther Elliss, the No. 1 draft choice from Utah, and Henry Thomas, the Pro Bowl veteran from the Vikings, to help pressure enemy quarterbacks, who as a group completed an NFL-high 67.6% of their passes against the Lions in '94; and the defense will be coached by former Viking assistant John Teerlinck, a solid football guy who writes such things as $ACK$ on the blackboard.