Let's see. In regular-season games played on Thanksgiving Day and after since 1989, only the 49ers' Seifert (29-6 after Monday night's game) has a better record than Fontes (25-11). Levy of the Buffalo Bills is back in the pack at 17-17. There may be a more subtle reason that Fontes's team succeeds with the season on the line than the fact that his players turn their intensity up a notch to save his job. Compared with other NFL coaches Fontes runs fairly easy practices, with few sessions in full pads. This leaves the Lions softer than some foes in September. But this approach also has Detroit fresh for strong December pushes.
One of the big reasons for this season's strong finish dates back to a gutsy personnel call that Fontes and general manager Chuck Schmidt made in 1994. Detroit has had its share of mediocre quarterbacks—Eric Hippie, Erik Kramer, Dave Krieg, Chuck Long, Rodney Peete and Andre Ware, among others, have all started for the Lions since 1986. Fontes and Schmidt figured Detroit couldn't win a Super Bowl with guys like that. So after the 1993 season they pursued Mitchell, a 6'6", 230-pound free agent who had started only seven NFL games, for the Miami Dolphins, but who had shown considerable promise on those occasions when he replaced Dan Marino. "Chuck, this guy's the stallion we need to build around," Fontes told Schmidt. So the Lions gave Mitchell $11 million over three years, including a $5 million signing bonus. Mitchell promptly dive-bombed in 1994, completing a mere 48.4% of his passes and throwing more interceptions (11) than touchdowns (10) before breaking a bone in his right wrist in Week 10. Krieg replaced him and led the Lions to last season's playoffs. Says Mitchell, "What hurt me most was that never in my life, in anything I did, was I the problem, the weak link. And while watching Dave lead us into the playoffs, I felt I was the problem. But I've never been defeated at anything in my life. This off-season I completely committed myself to my job. I was going to be the quarterback Detroit thought it got when it signed me."
In their 62 years the Lions hadn't had a quarterback throw as many as 30 touchdown passes until Mitchell did so this year. They last had the league's top-rated offense in 1936, but they're No. 1 this year with a week to go. "I can't begin to tell you how happy I am here now," Mitchell says.
He wouldn't have said that in mid-September. After three weeks Detroit was 0-3, and its high-powered offense had a measly five touchdowns. So the offense engineered a bloodless coup d'état. Several starters—including Mitchell, Moore and Perriman—met after a Sept. 17 loss to the Arizona Cardinals and concluded that the Lions were playing too many two-tight end and two-back sets. They favored a three-wideout set (Perriman, Moore and Johnnie Morton at receiver, Barry Sanders at running back and either Rodney Holman or David Sloan at tight end).
"We brought [offensive coordinator] Tom Moore in," Herman Moore says, "and we told him what we wanted to do." Tom Moore, who helped run Pittsburgh's powerful offense of the late '70s, did what any intelligent coach confronted with the combination of a losing system and superb players should do: He bought into the proposed changes. "I can listen," he says, "and I wasn't upset by what they said. It's my responsibility to put our best 11 on the field, and so we did." Morton was inserted into a prominent third-receiver role and has since caught 37 passes, seven for touchdowns. Mitchell concentrated on getting the ball to prime targets Moore and Perriman, which meant fewer carries for Sanders, and the emphasis on the two-tight end set was reduced. Detroit scored 27 points on San Francisco and 38 on the Cleveland Browns in the ensuing two games, and it has been clicking more effectively ever since.
Surprisingly the Lions have turned their season around without relying as heavily on the running game as they had in the past. Detroit is throwing the ball on over 60% of its plays, third in the league. Sanders has rushed for 1,452 yards and passed the career 10,000-yard mark two weeks ago at the ripe old age of 27-but it's possible that Moore and Perriman will outgain him this season. Perriman, a trash-talking feisty receiver, gives Mitchell an excellent alternative to Moore. He had 36 balls thrown at him in a recent two-game stretch. This list of Mitchell's intended receivers on his first 13 throws against Houston shows how conscious he is of keeping both receivers involved: Moore, Perriman, Moore, Perriman, Moore, Perriman, Moore, Moore, Perriman, Perriman, Moore, Perriman, Moore. Easy to see, then, why Moore has 113 catches, Perriman 103. "Not in my wildest dreams did I ever expect us to have an offensive season like this," Perriman says.
Moore high-jumped 7'2¾" five years ago while a student at Virginia, so no cornerback can disrupt the high balls Mitchell routinely sends his way. His 210-pound frame seems sculpted from stone, the better to take over-the-middle batterings. And what hands. On TV, with his black-and-white gloves, Moore's hands look a mile long. "Everybody tells me that," Moore says. "But look." He holds his left hand out, fully extended, and a visitor who's of average size places his right hand against Moore's. Moore's fingers are a quarter inch shorter. "See. My hands are actually small," he says. "The key thing is, my fingertips are really strong. I was never taught to cradle the ball into my body, like some receivers are. I was always taught to look it in and catch it with my fingers."
While the Detroit offense has been productive since late September, the defense has struggled. Some improvement has come since halftime of the Lions' Nov. 12 game with Tampa Bay, after the Bucs shredded Detroit for 258 first-half yards. The Lions moved strong safety Bennie Blades closer to the line of scrimmage and made run defense his primary job. They held Tampa Bay to 43 second-half rushing yards, and their defense has been better since.
Spielman, the perennial Detroit leader in tackles, tore a pectoral muscle in the second quarter of the season opener. The Lions consulted numerous surgeons and muscle specialists on how to treat the tear and discussed whether Spielman could suffer permanent damage by continuing to play. "The pain was one thing, and there were times I was throwing my arm around like a wet noodle," Spielman says. "But worse, I kept getting this softball-sized lump under my arm, which was the blood and fluids accumulating from the injury. They probably took 500, 600 cubic centimeters of the stuff out of me this season."
Has the pain been worth it? Spielman scoffs. "When you sign on for this deal, you know you're going to leave some of your body parts out there on the field," he says.