What is it with Detroit Lion coach Wayne Fontes? This is a guy who shrugs and smiles when given a public ultimatum by his owner: Win or walk the plank. This is a guy who responds to barrage after barrage of heavy artillery from the media by singing Christmas songs to his critics. This is someone from whom his players have yet to hear a discouraging word.
"Wayne's the type of guy who's always trying to fire us up and make us play better," Detroit wide receiver Herman Moore says. "But then we go 3-6, and the press is killing us, and the owner comes out and says, 'Wayne's going to be fired if we don't make the playoffs.' So we come out to practice that week, and I see Wayne standing off to the side looking worse than I'd ever seen him. I go over and tell him, 'You're feeling down right now, so for once in your life as a coach, don't worry about us. We're going to turn it around. The players are going to rise to the occasion and do it—for you.' "
And so they have. Since owner William Clay Ford's ultimatum, the Lions have won six consecutive games, and Monday night they clinched a playoff berth when the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Minnesota Vikings. Detroit can win the NFC Central title if it beats the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Saturday and if the Green Bay Packers lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers the next day.
Strange team these Lions. Every November the players say to one another, "Hey, this coach who's pretty easy on us is going to get fired if we don't get our butts in gear." Then they get their butts in gear. In Fontes's seven seasons of running this periodically underachieving lot, Detroit has won only 34 of the 77 games it has played before Thanksgiving but 26 of the 39 games played on the holiday and thereafter.
"I tell guys in the locker room, 'Who knows what kind of coach we'll get if Wayne goes?' " says wideout Brett Perriman. "Some coaches are psychotic maniacs who kill you just to prove they're in charge. I ask guys, 'Do you know how good we have it? Wayne's a coach we love to play for. Don't blow it.' "
So the recurrent revival of the Lions can be interpreted as an indictment of Fontes as much as it can be seen as an endorsement of his coaching.
There are so many good stories on this team. There's an offense that, if it can learn to handle the blitz, would scare all potential playoff opponents, including the Dallas Cowboys and the 49ers. There's the man who seems to have epoxy on his hands, the 6'3" Moore, who lives in the long shadows of his NFC brethren Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin, even though he has 1,581 yards in '95 and is just 10 catches short of breaking the single-season reception record. There's his fiery sidekick, Perriman. Moore and Perriman are the first receiving duo to catch 100 balls each in an NFL season and to have a combined 2,934 receiving yards. There's the quarterback, Scott Mitchell, the once controversial free-agent signee, finally paying some very big dividends. There's the soul of the defense, linebacker Chris Spielman, playing most of the season with a torn chest muscle that swells and requires painful draining each week.
Then there's Fontes. For the third consecutive year, nearly every reporter with a computer and every talk-show host with an agenda began calling for his head in mid-season. That didn't stop Fontes from serenading the Detroit press corps with a few bars of Frosty the Snowman a few weeks ago.
Can Fontes really be that upbeat, or down deep is he bitter about the way he has been ripped? That question is posed in the lobby of a Houston hotel before the Lions beat the Oilers 24-17 on Dec. 10. Fontes takes a step away, and he stops. "Am I bitter?" he says. "Well...I hear things. I read things. I know what everybody's saying. But all I've ever said is, 'Let's play the full season and see what happens.' You can't judge a team after three games, or nine games.
"Look what we've done at the end of the year, with the season on the line, since I've been the coach. Who's got a better record? George Seifert? Marv Levy, maybe? Doesn't December count?"