Buying a used quarterback is a little different than, say, buying a used Chevy Impala. But not much. You still want to know if the thing can go 100 yards without blowing up.
Which is why, on paper anyhow, 35-year-old Joe Ferguson looks like a pretty good deal.
No dents. No major accidents. If football were a used car lot, Ferguson would have CREAMPUFF scribbled across his face.
Hey, the guy started 107 straight games in Buffalo before an ankle injury last September. One hundred and seven straight — in the NFL. That’s like driving from Boston to Beirut on one tank of gas.
Impressive, huh? And the Lions’ coaches boast about how, despite 12 years of banging bodies with the big boys, Joe’s knees are not spaghetti, his shoulder doesn’t come off like a Mr. Potato Head piece, and he can still add.
Of course, none of this matters.
Not to the long-suffering Lions fan. If the long-suffering Lions fan could tunnel under the football field and pop up in the middle of the 11-man huddle and look straight up into the facemask of this man who comes from the land of the ice and snow, he would ask but one question.
Hey, Joe, how’s the arm? Ferguson knows it, tells it
That’s usually what you want to know from 35-year-old quarterbacks, anyhow. Has the bee lost its stinger? Has the burrito lost its bite?
Can the guy still air out the cannon for 80 yards and a quick six, or what?
Ferguson, acquired in a draft-day trade with the Bills, will give his first answers tonight, when he faces his old teammates in the Lions’ pre-season opener at the Silverdome.
As a general rule, Joe doesn’t say much. Maturity will do that to you. So will 12 years in Buffalo. Maybe his jaw is still defrosting.
He did have this brief repartee with coach Darryl Rogers not too long ago.
ROGERS: Gee, Joe. Everytime I look at the papers, I read about how your arm has faded.
FERGUSON: It has.
ROGERS: But every pass I’ve seen you throw here has been zipped.
FERGUSON: Well, I used to zip ’em better.
ROGERS: Your arm must’ve been a rocket.
FERGUSON: It was.
Now, I like a guy like that. Age gracefully. Be yourself. That’s the way Ferguson does it. You won’t find him squirting mousse in his hair, or flipping up the collar on his Izod shirt. Nuh-uh. He is true to his roots in Louisiana, where bass is something you fish for, not what you turn up on the stereo.
Standing on the sidelines after practice, Joe looks like hell. His hair is matted with sweat, his face is craggy beyond his 35 years. So what? Ask him about his skills fading, he doesn’t flinch.
And he doesn’t lie.
“I’d be foolish to say my arm’s what it used to be. It gets tired quicker now. I feel the work.”
He looks down, passing his helmet from one hand to the other. “But don’t get me wrong. I can still throw it long and hard. Believe me.” He’s finally got indoor work
There was never a doubt back in the mid-’70s. Ferguson’s strength and quick release were highly regarded, even though his most effective passes often went no farther than the end of his arm to the stomach of O.J. Simpson.
But this is 1985. And he is here, in Detroit. It’s a place few quarterbacks would choose for a new lease on life.
Unless they came from Buffalo, land of the frozen face.
In Buffalo, it’s not the arm that goes first, it’s the hands. They go numb. Then the wind steals your pass. Then it snows on your head.
Compared to that, throwing in the Silverdome is as simple as letting water out of a tub.
“Yeah,” Ferguson says. “I’m looking forward to passing indoors, that’s for sure.”
And who knows? It could be a whole new chapter for the Louisiana man. Yes, that’s jumping the gun a bit. He doesn’t have the starter’s job wrapped up yet. But if he and Eric Hipple are close in September, Rogers may well nod to experience.
“For now, I’m just glad to get a new chance somewhere,” says Ferguson, walking off the field. “I’ve got some good games left in me.”
As he reaches the fence, his three-year-old daughter, Kristen, comes running out to greet him.
“C’mere,” he says, “and gimme some sugar.”
She jumps into his outstretched right arm.
Tonight, we’ll see how it throws.