Wayne Fontes' timing could not have been much better for his visit to the Detroit Lions in Tampa Sunday.
December was his time of year, and the time of year for his teams in his eight seasons as head coach of the Lions. It was also his time to deal with speculation about his job security. He handled it all in distinctive style – a flick of his cigar, a crack or two, and then rallying the players to make a playoff run and save his job.
Fontes was in a good mood as he made the rounds at Raymond James Stadium on a day when the Lions escaped with a 24-21 victory over the Tampa Bay Bucs. He greeted Owner Martha Firestone Ford and family members before the game, did interviews in the press box and watched from the Lions’ sideline as they closed out the day with a win on Matt Prater’s field goal in the last minute.
For obvious reasons, this week’s Monday Countdown looks at some of Fontes’ experiences as the Lions try to make a December playoff run. There’s a look at Fontes’ view of where his teams fell short at the key position, and also a look at Fontes’ record at a telling part of his coaching tenure.
There’s also a look at what current head coach Jim Caldwell says about speculation on his status, support for Caldwell from a prominent player and four things to like and not like about the Lions on Sunday.
We start with Wayne Fontes and the not-so-secret to winning in the NFL:
1. Fontes’ formula: His overall regular-season won-loss record was 66-67, but that is misleading. He was 2-3 as interim head coach for the last five games of 1988 after being promoted from defensive coordinator when Daryl Rogers was fired.
For eight full seasons, Fontes was 64-64, and that’s misleading, too. He started out 2-9 in 1989 and finished up 1-9 in 1996, his last season. In between those two extremes, the Lions were 61-46. They made the playoffs four times, won two division titles and had double-digit wins three times.
And his teams were fun to watch, with All Pros and Pro Bowl players on both sides of the ball.
2. Missing ingredient: It’s no secret. It’s the quarterback.
“Coaches know better,” Fontes said. “You can lose with one. You can’t win without one. Look at the coaches who win Super Bowls. Check the guy behind the center.
“We had an excellent football team that played together. We were missing that one player.”
Fontes pointed out a major front-office miscalculation: After the 1993 season, the Lions failed to re-sign Erik Kramer. He signed with the Bears, while the Lions won the bidding for Scott Mitchell.
3. Matthew Stafford: Fontes was asked how his teams would have fared with Stafford at quarterback. His answer was predictable.
“We’d have won four or five Super Bowls with him,” Fontes said. “I love this guy. He’s a super star. If I had him, I might still be working.”
Fontes was joking about still coaching in his late 70s, but he was deadly serious about what the Lions could have done with Stafford throwing to Herman Moore, Brett Perriman and Johnnie Morton, handing off to Barry Sanders, and playing behind an underrated offensive line that had Pro Bowlers in center Kevin Glover and left tackle Lomas Brown.
“He’s very, very tough,” Fontes said. “He can run. He’s a thrower.
“If I don’t have a quarterback, give me Barry Sanders. Then we have a chance.”
4. Stafford showcase: Fontes didn’t see him at his best against the Bucs – but only because of the two interceptions – but what he saw was pure brilliance. Stafford completed 36 of 44 passes for 381 yards and a touchdown to go with the two picks.
Stafford attributed the picks to being “impatient.”
His 82-percent completion rate might be attributed to not being sacked, and hit only three times.
* 5. Caldwell response:* Actually, he had no response to reports that surfaced early Sunday about his contract status and job security. There’s little doubt that he’d been briefed about them before he met the media in his postgame press conference.
“We’ve never, never, ever, ever been in the practice of talking about contracts and anything of that nature,” Caldwell said. “And certainly, not going to start today.”
6. Slay’s support: He was in a good mood after enhancing his Pro Bowl resume with his fifth interception and a fumble recovery, but he was serious in his support of Caldwell.
Acknowledging that “everybody in the NFL is on the hot seat,” Slay added:
“Outstanding coach. Great coach. I’ve never had a coach like that. Just a great man. Family man. A Godly man. He teaches us more than football.
“All I know is, we’re going to fight for him, go hard for him every day.”
7. Four things to like about the Lions Sunday:
Eric Ebron: He continued his solid play with a career-high 10 catches on 11 targets for 94 yards. In his last six games, Ebron has 27 catches on 33 targets. He lost an early fumble Sunday, but that’s a rarity for him.
The secondary: Slay and Quandre Diggs had interceptions. DJ Hayden recovered a fumble that was forced by safety Glover Quin.
Matt Prater: A bounce back from an off day a week ago in Baltimore when he missed an extra point and a mid-range field goal. There was no miss with the game on the line Sunday. He was good from 46 yards when a miss would have given the Bucs possession at their 36 and a chance to drive to a winning field goal.
Ziggy Ansah: It’s been a difficult season because of injuries, but he closed out the game by sacking Bucs QB Jameis Winston. It was Ansah’s sixth sack of the season.
8. Four things not to like about Sunday:
Fade, Bucs comeback: The Lions took a 21-7 lead into the fourth quarter and let a mediocre Bucs team tie the game with two touchdowns.
Run game: On both sides. The Lions had 53 yards rushing and an average of 2.9 yards per carry. The Bucs gained 80 more yards (133) and averaged almost two more yards per carry (4.8). Not good on either side.
Fourth-quarter penalties: A holding penalty wiped out a long gain by Golden Tate, and an interference call on Hayden gave the Bucs 40 yards on a third-down throw that probably would have been incomplete. And T.J. Lang had a false start that proved not to be fatal.
Wide-open Wester: Not a tropical storm, but a coverage breakdown – if there was any coverage – that left Leonard Wester wide open for a two-yard catch to tie the game. There have been too many breakdowns of late, and that was huge.