GIVE OR TAKE A FEW INCHES, KRAMER FARES WELL

CHICAGO — His fingers were raw and he blew cold smoke with every command, but Erik Kramer fought the wind and frantically waved his teammates into position because he still believed something could happen, even as the clock ticked down its final seconds. Unfortunately, he was so involved with this idea that he lined up under the wrong man, the guard instead of the center, and almost goosed the poor guy offsides.

It was that kind of day for the Lions and their new quarterback. Believing in a victory, but winding up just a few inches off course — the inches that separate a good defensive play from pass interference, the inches that separate sacking the quarterback from missing the quarterback.

The inches that separate a caught pass from an incomplete pass.

“Just a few plays,” Kramer sighed, after the Lions lost to the Bears, 20-10, on a Sunday meant for penguins. “A few too high. A few too low.”

He exhaled. His cheeks were still red from the cold, and in his blue turtleneck and bare socks he looked like a Canadian just back from an ice-fishing expedition. Which, come to think of it, is not that far off. After all, the last time Erik Kramer started a regular season football game was three years ago, Calgary vs. Edmonton, which sounds more like a hockey game. But here was the Detroit story, behind Kramer’s tired eyes. The question of the day was whether the Lions could beat the Bears and claim sole possession of first place in the NFC Central Division. The question of the season was this: Can Kramer do the job now that Rodney Peete is gone, or should we give up hope and save ourselves a lot of stomach acid?

The answer: don’t give up just yet.

The guy may have something. One that really got away

“Erik was great in the huddle, real confident, no hesitation,” said offensive tackle Lomas Brown, who had the unenviable job of keeping fire-breathing Richard Dent away from his quarterback. “We kept telling him,
‘We have confidence in you; don’t worry about anything.’ I thought he did fine.”

Let’s not forget that this was Opening Day for the 26-year- old Kramer: He has never started a real NFL game in his life. Oh, there were a few exhibition games, but after that, you have to go back to 1988, the Canadian League, before you find a day in which he ran out with the starters. Yet here he was Sunday, Soldier Field, wind chill of 10-below, and he was doing OK, completing

passes and even throwing a touchdown. The CBS-TV tandem of John Madden and Pat Summerall kept commenting on how calm he looked.

“I guess,” Kramer said afterward, chuckling, “it’s better than them saying, ‘This guy is really rattled. Better give him the hook.’ “

For sure, he made mistakes. He threw over the head of Willie Green; he threw at the feet of Brett Perriman. He threw one interception in the second quarter and another to start the fourth. He completed just 19 of 40 passes, and the toss he would most like back was a grass ball to Perriman on third-and- four, with about 12 minutes left. “The Bears took over and marched right downfield after that one,” Kramer said. “I should have completed it. We could have held the ball.”

But that play was not the reason the Lions lost. In fact, Kramer had less to do with the final outcome of this game than a few badly timed penalties by the defense, and his rival quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, whom we all knew when he was just a kid and don’t we wish he stayed that way?

Harbaugh, in case you’ve lost track, has become quite the hero in Chicago, a quarterback to match his city. He’s hard- nosed, snarl-and-scratch, a guy who is best when all hell breaks loose — as it did late in the game, third-and-six near the end zone. Harbaugh looked to pass, began to scramble, froze the defense, then pulled up and threw a touchdown pass to Wendell Davis.

That was the game. Jimmy turned to his sideline, and made a bolo punch in the air.

“I don’t know why I did that, I hate when quarterbacks do that,” he later told a mob around his locker. They all laughed. They love him. Harbaugh, his uniform appropriately stained, is not the prettiest of quarterbacks, not the fastest, nor the most accurate. But lately, he has become a winner, deciding games in the closing minutes (he did the same thing a week earlier to beat the previously undefeated Saints), and there is nothing Chicago loves more than a winner with blood on his pants. He’s the man, no question

In many ways, that is now the challenge for Kramer. If the Lions are to have a chance at the playoffs, he will have to be more than a substitute for Peete. He will have to be a winner, a guy who turns the game. In that way, Sunday — despite the final outcome — was not so terrible for the Lions. Kramer didn’t panic. He looked natural out there; he made mistakes and came right back.

Remember, he is the guy for the rest of the season — and the postseason, if there is one.

The next step will be winning a game he starts. The Lions hope it’s this Sunday, in warmer weather, against Tampa Bay. “I think I grew up a lot out there today,” Kramer said. “I mean, I certainly didn’t feel like I couldn’t do the job. I could have executed a few more plays, and I hope I do better next week.”

I’ll bet you this much: He doesn’t line up under the wrong guy again. A man can only get away with that for so long, you know.

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