Roaring and Scoring
The Browns came into the Pontiac Silverdome on Sunday prepared to play the incompetent Detroit team that had wobbled to an 0-3 start, not the talented one that had stunned the NFL with a 27-24 upset of the mighty 49ers on Sept. 25. So the last thing the Browns were expecting was the 38-20 pounding that the Lions dished out. "Man, that was fun," said Detroit veteran offensive tackle Lomas Brown. "I can't remember the last time I got to enjoy the last minutes on the bench, sipping Gatorade and jonesin' the guys on the field."
The victory muted, at least temporarily, the howls for coach Wayne Fontes's job. After all, there's little doubt Fontes is responsible for the Lions' turnaround. Never mind that his best decision of late was giving in to his players' demands for changes in the game plans. The players felt Fontes was undermining quarterback Scott Mitchell's leadership, not to mention turning Barry Sanders into a nonentity.
Before the season Fontes repeatedly expressed confidence in Mitchell, the oft-erratic, heavily maligned, high-priced quarterback who is in his second year with the Lions. But that quickly proved to be just a lot of hot air. In losses to Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Arizona, it was clear to even the peanut vendors that Fontes still didn't trust Mitchell's passing or his play-calling. So defenses stacked their lines with eight or nine players, daring Mitchell to call something other than Sanders's number and knowing he wouldn't. As for Sanders, he had no shot. "It was as if we were running Barry into a brick wall over and over," says offensive guard David Lutz.
The Monday after the embarrassing home loss to Arizona, the team's veteran leaders called a players-only meeting. "Something had to change," said Brown, an All-Pro who is in his 11th year as a starter. The players agreed with Mitchell's contention that Fontes had to give his quarterback more freedom. As Brown put it, "In most offenses the quarterback is the man. We thought the coaches should let Scott have more control over what he likes to call. He knows more about what's going on on the field than the coaches."
The next day the players took their grievances to Fontes and his staff. At 0-3 and with their jobs on the line, the coaches had little choice but to let the players try it their way. "I give the coaches credit for that," Brown says. Six days later the rejuvenated Lions stunned the 49ers. San Francisco limited Sanders to a mere 24 yards on 17 carries, but Mitchell, running the passing game the way he wanted, made the 49ers pay, completing a career-high 28 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown.
Against Cleveland, Detroit finally found the balance it wants, partly because the Browns thought the Lions could be stopped by stacking the line. Au contraire, Dog Pounders. The new Lions will kill you with the pass if you try to gang up on Sanders. And Sanders will make you pay if you drop off to cover Detroit's fine receivers. Mitchell was 24 of 38 for 273 yards and two TDs, both to Brett Perriman, whose six-catch, 78-yard day was second only to the splendid Herman Moore's nine catches for 125 yards. And Sanders ran for 157 yards and three touchdowns.
"I don't think we should change a play the rest of the season," Brown said. "I just think we ought to put what we did today in a bottle and open that bottle every Sunday."
Much of the fizz, of course, still comes from Sanders, who last year accounted for more than 43% of Detroit's offense. Late in the first quarter, with the Lions leading 7-3, Sanders electrified the crowd of 74,171 by turning a routine draw play into a 75-yard masterpiece that was the longest scoring run of his career. The message was clear: Barry's back, and so are the Lions. Said Brown, who threw the block that sprang Sanders, "Give the man a hole and he's gonna hit it. It felt good to see the back of his jersey again."