These Detroit Lions, can anybody figure them out? They were crushed by the Washington Redskins 45-0 on opening day, and since then they have lost five starters to injury, including No. 1 quarterback Rodney Peete, All-Pro nosetackle Jerry Ball and last season's sack leader, linebacker Michael Cofer. They put some guy at the helm whose main claim to fame is that he once played in the Potato Bowl. They patch the other positions with anybody who's standing around, and—lo!—they have become good.
On Sunday, in an NFC divisional playoff at the frighteningly loud Silverdome, the Lions dissected the Dallas Cowboys 38-6 with an attack so surgically precise and painless (to the Lions) that observer, er, decoy—excuse us—running back Barry Sanders said afterward, "If there was such a thing as a doubleheader in football, I'd be ready to go in minutes."
Quarterback Erik Kramer, whose junior college team, Los Angeles Pierce, lost to Taft College 51-24 in the 1983 Potato Bowl, was so terrific that reporters didn't know quite what to ask him when it was all over.
Can you throw like that all the time?
Didn't the Cowboy and the Lion helmets look alike to you?
You played at Virginia, right?
"Now there you go again. North Carolina State."
Indeed. And he was named the ACC Player of the Year in 1986, and he played three strike games for the Atlanta Falcons in '87 and one season in the Canadian Football League before signing as a free agent with Detroit in 1990, but still...where did this game come from?
Kramer finished with 29 completions in 38 attempts for 341 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. He had touch and poise and vision. He lofted the ball, and he dumped it off. He was sacked only once. He took what the Cowboys were giving. Which was everything north of the Alamo. Bobby Layne never had a playoff game like this. Hardly any quarterback in history has.
On the Lions' opening drive Kramer threw five straight times, completing the first three passes for first downs and having one dropped by Sanders, before hitting wide receiver Willie Green in the end zone for a 31-yard TD over Dallas safety Ray Horton. The drive covered 68 yards in 2:09 and, essentially, put the cork in the game bottle. Kramer's completion and yardage totals set Lion playoff records and left people scratching their heads over this smiling, 6'1", 195-pound guy whose postgame locker room entourage consisted of his brother-in-law and a chiropractor friend. "What I don't understand," he said, yanking tape, hair and skin from his left knee in a nearly empty locker room, "is why would people think we'd get blown out by Dallas?"
Good question. And easy to answer. Coming into the game, the Cowboys had won 11 of their last 14 games, including six straight over the Redskins, Pittsburgh Steelers, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons and, in the first round of the playoffs, Chicago Bears. Dallas had both a 1,000-yard receiver and a 1,000-yard rusher, with wideout Michael Irvin (93 catches for 1,523 yards) and running back Emmitt Smith (365 carries for a league-leading 1,563 yards) putting up the big numbers. And the Cowboys had an opportunistic defense featuring a blend of veterans, Plan B acquisitions and youngsters.
Like Detroit, Dallas was led on offense by a backup quarterback playing out of his mind. In the Cowboys' case it was Steve Beuerlein, the journeyman Notre Dame graduate subbing for injured Troy Aikman. Beuerlein had started the last five games, and the Cowboys won all of them. Of his style, he said before the Detroit game, "I'm not going to make bone-head plays. I'm not going to kill you." Even though Aikman had recovered from his knee injury by last week, coach Jimmy Johnson decided to let Beuerlein start against the Lions. "Troy is the guy, I make no bones about it," said Beuerlein on Friday, "but this is the old 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it.' "
The only snag for the Cowboys was that the Lions live on emotion, eat it up the way a dragster burns gasohol. And emotion has poured over them all season, making Detroit a team unaware of its limits. There was the unifying shock of the Redskins massacre, which didn't help coach Wayne Fontes's job security. There was Sanders's triumphant return to the Lions the next week, after he had missed most of the preseason in a contract dispute and had sat out the opener with a rib injury. There is Fontes himself, a big-hearted, rah-rah guy who seems too sweet for his job, a man who talks about love and passion the way most coaches talk about X's and O's. There is the laser intensity and Zen-like devotion to the game of too-slow, too-awkward Pro Bowl middle linebacker Chris Spielman. And, above all, there is the sobering bond created when starting guard Mike Utley suffered a paralyzing spinal injury six weeks ago against the Los Angeles Rams. Utley's thumbs-up signal as he was wheeled off the field that day has become the Lions' multipurpose salute, war cry and prayer, a special symbol for what a moist-eyed Fontes calls "a special team."
"If Mike were here, healthy, that would mean everything to us," says Ken Dallafior, who upon taking Utley's place at right guard, called it "the hardest thing I've ever done." But when Dallafior talked to Utley on the phone in midweek, Utley's only message was, "Get a can of whup-ass and put it on Dallas."
Detroit did exactly that, holding the Cowboys to 276 net yards, just one for nine on third-down conversions and two 28-yard field goals by Ken Willis, both in the first half. It was the second time this season the Lions had pummeled Dallas at the Silverdome, having won 34-10 on Oct. 27. In that game the Cowboys gained 415 yards to the Lions' 208 but were undone by four turnovers; this time Dallas couldn't do much of anything right. With Detroit leading 7-3 early in the second quarter, Beuerlein threw a pass to wide receiver Alvin Harper in the left flat that Lion cornerback Melvin Jenkins picked off and returned 41 yards for a touchdown. "I'd watched film, and I was waiting on that one," said Jenkins later. "That kind of finished him."
Jenkins was referring to Beuerlein, who, shortly before the half, with the score 17-6, was replaced by Aikman—to no avail. Aikman promptly was sacked by linebacker Jed Hunter and then threw a Hail Mary that was intercepted by Spiel-man. The Lions continued to pick apart a Dallas defense that was stacked up tight because it was hell-bent not to let Sanders beat it by running the ball. He didn't, gaining only 69 yards on 12 carries, but Kramer and his receivers did, exposing the Cowboys' weakness at cornerback, especially against taller receivers. In the third quarter Kramer connected with the 6'2" Green on a nine-yard TD pass and followed it with a seven-yard strike to 6'3" rookie Herman Moore, making the score 31-6. "They never came out of their run defense," marveled Kramer at Dallas's refusal to forget about Sanders.
The reason they didn't dare forget was shown in the fourth quarter when Sanders shocked everyone with a remarkable 47-yard touchdown run on a sweep right that should have gone nowhere. Sanders broke a tackle, bounced out of a pileup, spun a few defenders silly and sprinted into the end zone. Asked to describe the run later, Sanders said quietly, "After the guy hit me, I was still on my feet. That was pretty much it." Right. And the Mona Lisa's a cartoon.
The win was Detroit's first in the playoffs in 35 years, and it seems unlikely this overachieving team will go farther this season. The Lions have never beaten Washington, their opponent in Sunday's NFC Championship Game, on the road. We're talking 0-15, lifetime.
"All year long people have given us no respect," said Kramer. He smiled, then added, "That's Erik. With a K."
Just in case.