Perhaps it was an omen. The Grim Reaper was at the Silverdome for Sunday's game between the Lions and the Packers. He wore a hooded black cloak and a skeleton mask and carried a scythe. This long-suffering Lion fan added a personal touch to his Halloween costume with a sign that read, WAYNE, IF YOU DON'T WIN, I'M COMING TO GET YOU.
Wayne is embattled Lion coach Wayne Fontes. And Wayne, of course, was a winner Sunday, because every time the rumblings start about his job security, his Lions come through with a victory. Detroit's 24-16 win over Green Bay came one week after a demoralizing overtime loss to the Washington Redskins. The Lions are 3-5 and are breathing again (barely) in a last-gasp race for a playoff spot. "We're still in this thing," a relieved Fontes said after Sunday's triumph. "This team won't quit. Don't count us out yet."
Lion quarterback Scott Mitchell threw three first-half touchdown passes to the spectacular Herman Moore (six receptions, 147 yards), and running back Barry Sanders balanced the attack with 167 yards on 22 carries. (Sanders moved into 10th place on the NFL's alltime rushing list, with 9,510 yards.) Defensively, Detroit forced three interceptions and a fumble against a Green Bay offense that had turned the ball over a total of seven times in its first seven games.
"We played for the pass 95 percent of the time," said linebacker Chris Spielman. "We said if they're going to beat us, they'll have to run the football. Brett Favre is their bread and butter, and we were going to try to contain him as much as possible." Favre still threw for 304 yards, but his turnovers ultimately did Green Bay in. Even the fumble was his, and it came at the Lion nine-yard line late in the game.
The victory may have been uplifting for beleaguered Lion fans, but don't expect the anti-Fontes sentiment to subside anytime soon. Every Tom from Hamtramck, Dick from Ypsilanti and Harry from Romulus will continue to call for Fontes's head on the talk-radio shows. On Sunday every other Winnebago in the stadium parking lot had a sign with some version of this sentiment: STOP THE PAIN, FIRE WAYNE. One Silverdome sign read, COACH WANTED. EXPERIENCE NECESSARY.
The fans keep coming back—the Lions played before their third straight home sellout—though they are fed up with the club's inconsistency. In Week 4 Detroit shocked the world with a 27-24 upset of San Francisco. That came eight days after the Lions blew an 11-point third-quarter lead to the Cardinals and lost 20-17. This is how it goes in the Motor City: Down. Up. Down. Up. Just like a jalopy with bad shocks.
Some of the analogies heard around Detroit of late are tired, but all are true: Fontes has more lives than a cat (or Shirley MacLaine; you choose). Fontes rises from the ashes like the phoenix (or like a zombie from Night of the Living Dead; you pick). Fontes is a survivor. One columnist wrote that if you were to leave Fontes naked and near death on an iceberg, you would find him wearing a fur coat and puffing a cigar when you returned two weeks later. Fontes is like Jason of Friday the 13th fame. Over his seven seasons the Lions have not had a winning record against any NFC Central team, but Fontes keeps appearing in the sequels.
To be sure, Fontes is as endangered as the ocelot. He is under contract through the 1997 season, but he will likely lose his job unless the Lions can pull off the impossible: make the playoffs and win a postseason game. In each of the past two seasons, the Lions have lost in the first round to the Packers.
Fontes's teams always play hard at the end of the season. They are 19-10 in games after Thanksgiving Day, including 1994's 3-1 mark. "Never say die," Fontes will tell any skeptic in his path. Just beware of the Grim Reaper.