Late last Thursday, after the Detroit Lions finished practicing inside the Pontiac Silverdome, coach Wayne Fontes motored across the turf in his golf cart. As he made his way toward his office, Fontes stopped for a second and answered a few questions from reporters. But before they could launch any serious inquiries about his problems with quarterback Scott Mitchell or how his team's mediocre start might affect the Nov. 5 vote on a tax levy for a new stadium, Fontes was rubbing his ample belly and filling the empty dome with his laughter. He had overdone it on the kielbasa during lunch, you see, and needed to get going.
Fontes used just this sort of jocularity to deflect serious scrutiny when Detroit started 2-4 in 1994 and 3-6 in '95. He wound up guiding the Lions to the playoffs both times to save his job, thus earning the nickname the Great Waynedini. But after Sunday's 28-18 thumping at Green Bay, which dropped Detroit to 4-5 and four games behind the Packers in the NFC Central standings, Fontes's shtick has worn so thin that it can no longer cover up the problems in Motown.
Outside the visitors' locker room at Lambeau Field, Fontes, who is 66-65 with one playoff victory during his 8� years in Detroit, was joking about his infected eye and promoting a new slogan for the season's remaining weeks: Seven in a row. Inside, his players were not in the same mood. "We are definitely down," said All-Pro wideout Herman Moore, who on Sunday caught only four passes for 50 yards. "And there isn't a guy in this locker room, or a coach, who can stand here and still tell you we're fine."
Even Fontes, who has proved to be the NFL's Lazarus, may not recover from Week 10. On Monday, Oct. 28, he had to apologize to Mitchell for having benched him in the middle of a series during a 35-7 home loss to the New York Giants the day before. Although Mitchell had thrown three interceptions, it was an amateurish move to make him the scapegoat. Fontes's credibility was crushed altogether that night when Mitchell showed up at a team Halloween party dressed as the coach—his costume consisted of Mickey Mouse ears, a cigar and a pillow stuffed under his shirt—and mocked Fontes in front of the TV cameras.
Mitchell, however, may not have been finished humiliating Fontes. Somehow, a strained rib muscle, an injury that occurred during a non-contact drill last Thursday, kept him on the sidelines for the most crucial game of the season. While Fontes swore that Mitchell was in too much pain to throw, one Lions assistant coach was questioning just how badly Mitchell was hurt as late as Sunday morning. Detroit was left with noodle-armed Don Majkowski to take snaps against the powerful Pack.
So Fontes turned to running back Barry Sanders, who had rushed for more than 100 yards in only three of his last 13 games. Sanders, though, was his old slashing self, finishing with 152 yards on 20 carries. The seven-time Pro Bowl back gained all but two of Detroit's 68 yards in a second-quarter scoring march. His 18-yard TD run at the end of that drive left half the Packers either flattened or hugging air, and it gave the Lions their last lead, at 10-7. "Things aren't hopeless," Sanders was assuring everyone last week.
They certainly looked that way in the game's final 40 minutes. Both of the Packers' starting receivers were injured and unavailable, but quarterback Brett Favre hooked up with eight other players to shred the Lions' secondary (coached by Wayne's little brother, John), throwing for 281 yards and four touchdowns. If Detroit's players were paid each week based solely on effort, as safety Bennie Blades suggested at a recent players-only meeting, then the defense, which has given up 124 points in its last four games, had better plan a bake sale.
At the very least the Lions shouldn't be going through the motions at the same time they're asking Detroit voters to fund the final $80 million needed for two new stadiums (one is for baseball). "We've got too many talented guys just picking up checks," said Moore. "There is nothing more frustrating than going out each Sunday and getting flat outhustled by a team with less talent. That's the worst feeling of all."
But with Fontes out of gags and, more important, answers, it's a feeling the Lions had better get used to.