PHILADELPHIA — He was the rusty model, the spare part you keep in the garage, just in case. It is unlikely Joe Ferguson will even be around the Lions next year, but on Sunday afternoon, his coach came up and said the words he figured were forever behind him now.
“When did you find out?” someone asked Ferguson, after he played the entire game as Lions quarterback in their awkward 13-11 win over the Eagles Sunday.
“In the warmups,” he said, then he grinned. “Late in the warmups.”
Late in the warmups, late in his career, and suddenly, Joe Ferguson was going out there again. Starting. Eric Hipple, the regular, was injured, sore elbow. Chuck Long — the rookie everyone was waiting for — was not ready for this step. At least not according to Rogers. “You’re starting,” the coach said. And Ferguson, 36, was old enough to know better than to get nervous.
He got nervous anyhow.
“I’d forgotten how much intensity you need out there,” he said afterward.
“I haven’t played in so long. In the early going, I’m thinking, ‘If I go in there and make a mistake, am I gonna be out again?’ I just didn’t want to make any mistakes.”
He spoke from the Lions’ locker room, with Hipple getting dressed on his right and Long getting dressed on his left. The questions came, and he smiled when he answered.
Why was he smiling? On paper he had been awful. Threw 33 passes and completed only 10. Was sacked three times for 30 yards. And on a critical fourth-quarter drive, he threw an interception that could have sealed the Lions’ defeat.
He was sweaty. He was sore.
Don’t you get it? That’s why he was smiling. Tough to be a Lion Joe Ferguson has not had an easy time as a Lion. He came in a trade that Darryl Rogers pushed for, but by the time the 1985 season started, Hipple was Rogers’ starter. Ferguson wore a cap during games and kept his arms folded.
Then 1986 came around — the final year of Ferguson’s contract — and, of course, the Lions drafted Chuck Long as the heir apparent.
So now Ferguson is merely the man in the middle, the forgotten quarterback between the present, Hipple, and the future, Long. Going into this game, all the talk in Detroit had been when will Long come in, when will he play? Ferguson, who was starting in the NFL when Chuck Long was in fourth grade, barely heard his name.
“It’s been a frustrating year for me,” he said, “I have to be honest with you. I didn’t know if I’d start a game again.”
“Were you happy with your performance out there today?” he was asked.
“No, not at all,” he said. “I was rusty. I made some mistakes.”
He paused. “But it’s gonna feel nice to look at the stats and not see ‘Did not play’ next to my name.”
There was almost “goat” next to his name. In the fourth quarter, score 11-10, Eagles, with the Lions in good field position, Ferguson threw an interception. “My poor judgment,” he said.
Two minutes left. That looked like the game.
“He came off the field and he was down,” Hipple said. “I told him, hey, keep your head up. We’re gonna get it back.”
Ferguson has been around too long to believe that stuff. But then Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham scrambled for yardage when he should have just fallen on the ball — a youthful mistake, ironically — and he was stripped, the fumble was recovered, and Ferguson snapped up as if two tanks of liquid oxygen had just been injected into his body.
The Lions’ offense went back out, and a few plays later, Eddie Murray kicked the winning field goal with 12 seconds left. What about next week? There have been days for Joe Ferguson when he just felt like, “what the heck?”, days when he didn’t want to see any more reporters, days when he didn’t want to talk.
He is playing mostly for numbers now — “I would really like to get 30,000 yards before I leave the game” — and Sunday he passed Terry Bradshaw for 13th place on the NFL’s all-time passing yardage list.
“I left a lot of room for improvement out there,” he said. “Which there will be . . . “
He hesitated, then added quickly, ” . . . if I start next week.”
If. When. Who knows. Detroit is in for another six days of wondering who their quarterback will be. So be it. This day was Ferguson’s, lousy numbers and all.
On one side Eric Hipple was slipping on his coat. On the other side, Chuck Long finished tying his shoe.
The man in the middle was still in his underwear. He sat down and smiled. He looked young.