After seven losing seasons, the DETROIT LIONS flashed like a comet in 1991, with a 12-4 record and a division title. Terrific coaching job by Wayne Fontes, said the faithful. Easy schedule, said the cynics. Wait till they get that first-place schedule next year.
Which they got—plus a 5-11 record. Well, if the formula holds, the Lions should be right back in it, because they inherited a last-place schedule. Instead of having to face the Redskins and the-Cowboys in the NFC, the Lions will get the Cardinals twice, plus the Rams and the Falcons; instead of playing the AFC Central, they will meet the Patriots and the Seahawks. Get the picture?
Not that anyone's going to hand the Lions a playoff spot. They gave up 59 sacks last year and lost quarterback Rodney Peete twice via blows to the head. So they acquired Bill Fralic and Dave Richards to man the guards, and former Chief guard David Lutz to play the power tackle. That's a step.
Three guys started at quarterback last year, Peete, Andre Ware and Erik Kramer, the hero of the '92 playoff win over Dallas. This year Fontes made it a competition between Ware and Peete, naming Peete as his starter after the third exhibition game. Kramer never figured. The offense still will be a crossbreed between the four-wideout Silver Stretch and a one, sometimes two, tight end alignment. One plus for the Lions is that Barry Sanders, behind the new linemen, should put up even bigger numbers than last years 1,352 rushing yards.
QB Steve DeBerg of the TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS is 39. He started for the 49ers before Bill Walsh got there. He broke in Joe Montana with the Niners and John Elway in Denver. He had one center-stage year, 1990, in K.C.; then he slipped into the shadows.
DeBerg once said his goal was to be the oldest player in the NFL, and when Jet kicker Pat Leahy retired in January, he made it. Now DeBerg has to hold the Bucs together, and give the team dignity and respectability until second-year man Craig Erickson is ready. And DeBerg will have to do it without holdout All-Pro left tackle Paul Gruber (who never missed a snap in 80 games, 4,850 plays), and without Anthony Munoz, who was coaxed out of retirement by coach Sam Wyche, then was lost with a shoulder injury.
The Bucs have an unsung runner in Reggie Cobb and a terrific tight end pair in Ron flail and Tyji Armstrong. There is talent in left corner Ricky Reynolds and 'backer Hardy Nickerson, and possible pass-rush help from No. 1 draft pick Eric Curry. You can find some interesting names here and there. Just not enough of them.
One tough note. The Bucs' 7-3 win over Phoenix in last year's finale earned them a very rough third-place schedule instead of Detroit's last-place schedule. Wins will be very hard to find.
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