LILLEHAMMER, Norway — Erik Kramer captured the gold medal in jumping Monday. He didn’t need skis. Didn’t need gloves. All he needed was a push.
The Lions gave him that — for four years.
“They never made me feel like they wanted me,” Kramer said from the office of the Chicago Bears, a team that feels differently. “I wanted to be someplace where they believed in me from the start.”
And with that, the most successful quarterback Wayne Fontes ever coached just walked out the door, went west on I-94 and stopped in the first major city, Chi-Town — where he will now play against his old team twice a year.
Fontes has no one to blame but himself.
Kick a dog long enough, he’ll bite you in the butt. With all the puppeteering Fontes pulled with his quarterbacks, Kramer was the one whose strings got jerked the most. He delivered. He got benched. He delivered. He got benched. Twice he led the Lions to the playoffs, but rarely did they say,
“That’s it, he’s No. 1 for good.”
Instead, they often tilted back toward Rodney Peete, who despite his injuries somehow earned their affections, and Andre Ware, whose hefty salary kept flashing like a piece of glass in the sunlight. Kramer got to play, but it was always, in his words, “by default.”
And until last week, he had to take it. He would roll his eyes, make a face, leave early to avoid questions. After the season-ending loss to Green Bay last month, he sat by his locker with his son on his lap. Someone asked whether his Lions career was over. He shrugged and said, “You never know.”
Kramer knew. Like a prisoner who circles his parole date on the calendar, he had been waiting for free agency to come. It did. And at a pretty good time, given his performance in 1993.
He took off the uniform and headed for the marketplace.
Or, in Olympic terms: He made like a luge and slid. Bears’ intentions honorable
Here’s how long it took Kramer to find a new team. One night. He had dinner Sunday with Bears coach Dave Wannstedt at a steak place called Gibson’s in downtown Chicago. Wannstedt is as straightforward as they come. Just the kind of thing Kramer wanted. Wannstedt has been with winners, having coached the Cowboys defense to the 1993 Super Bowl title, and he knows better than to dink around with quarterbacks. He inherited Jim Harbaugh. He didn’t like him. He inherited Peter Tom Willis. He wasn’t impressed.
He told Kramer, “You’re what I want,” and as much as a coach can do this, he guaranteed him the starting position.
He also gave him $8.1 million for three years.
Kramer made like a skier and schussed.
“I decided to sign the next morning,” Kramer said. Wannstedt “was energetic, committed to winning, and with the style of offense he wants to set up around me. It’s too good to be true.”
Hey. No bad feelings here. Kramer did what the Lions asked — whenever they asked. He worked hard and was the guy still making suggestions when others were ready to bolt from the meetings. Can you blame him for shopping? If the Lions truly wanted him, they would have been more aggressive. Their offer a few weeks ago was around $3 million for two years.
Chicago more than doubled that.
“The Lions were almost reluctant pursuers,” Kramer said. “I think they might have been competitive in the end, money-wise, but it was like, ‘Yeah, we want you, until we can find someone else.’ “
This time, he didn’t have to take it.
He made like a bobsled and pushed. Lions still chasing their tails
So now the Lions are back to Square One. Actually, they’re below Square One. They’re at Square Zero. The only quarterback they have signed is Chuck Long. Didn’t we do him already? Who’s next? Rusty Hilger?
Well, Fontes said he wasn’t thrilled with his quarterback situation. Don’t worry, Wayne. It won’t repeat itself.
At least not with Ware, Peete and Kramer. Fontes could be the same indecisive coach with new bodies, in which case we’re in for hell next season. But a lot of his wishy-washiness came from crossed swords by his offensive coaches. Dan Henning wanted one quarterback. Dave Levy wanted another. Of course, Levy is still in Detroit. His quarterback — Kramer — is not.
Is the guy worth $8.1 million? That depends. As starting passers go, that’s a fair market price these days. Surely the Lions will need to pay at least that to get any big name they pursue.
Then again, if you’re not sold on him, why pay it? I just hope they have someone in mind. Barry Sanders is gonna look strange throwing the ball.
“I haven’t spoken to the Lions’ front office myself,” Kramer said, “but I bet their reaction was, ‘Good, we’ll sign somebody else.’ “
We’ll see. It’s not that easy. By the way, there is no truth to the rumor that Kramer called William Clay Ford’s answering machine and left a message:
“Mr. McCaskey, I’m thrilled to be joining your team. Thanks for the money.”
No, he weighed his options and made a choice. He went someplace where when the coach says, “You’re my guy,” his nose doesn’t grow.
He made like a biathlete and —
Aw, the hell with analogies.
And I don’t blame him a bit.