Andre Ware stood on the sideline like a man who had just been scolded. He crossed his feet. He uncrossed his feet. He folded his arms. He unfolded his arms. His jaw was tight. He stared out into space.
“Depressed?” he would say later, after being benched in the Lions 17-7 loss to Minnesota. “Yes, I was depressed.” Ware, like most young people, felt the lights would always turn green for him. He figured once he got past the politics of who sits and who starts — and after all, why shouldn’t he start, why else were they paying him all that money? — well, then things would fall into place. Things would be good. Things would be like the old days, when he was making quarterback miracles in college and high school.
Welcome to the big leagues, kid. Just 30 minutes after Ware burst through the NFL curtain and into the big room, he was told to sit down. He was watching another man quarterback the team. And while he would not use this word, the feeling he felt was failure. It hurt. So he looked down, he looked away, when coaches approached and whispered encouraging words he nodded but he did not look at their faces. Inside he seethed. What do they know?
It is no secret I never thought Ware should have started this game. But the mistake was not his. The mistake, I felt, was with Wayne Fontes’ decision to start him in the first place. It created bad feelings. It embittered Bob Gagliano, it made Rodney Peete wonder about his future. And, even worse, it was playing craps with Ware’s confidence. The plain fact is, the kid probably wasn’t ready. Fontes admitted as much when he removed him after the first half Sunday following two interceptions and no points.
“Andre was missing a lot of open men,” Fontes would say. “He wasn’t seeing things that well.” Translation: he wasn’t ready.
But the failure Ware felt, he should not feel alone. Had he looked carefully from that sideline, he would have seen a Lions defense that could not shut down the Vikings when it had to. Over and over, third down after third down, fourth down after fourth down, the Vikings converted. They stayed on the field. Sure, the Lions allowed only 10 points — a heavy improvement over last week’s Disaster In The Dome. But let’s remember, these were not the Washington Redskins. These were the Minnesota Vikings, a team that, going in, had: 1) a worse record than Detroit; 2) A coach who is on the chopping block; 3) A “star” running back whose most recent Sports Illustrated article was entitled “I Am Not A Dog”; and 4) A placekicker who just got indicted for smuggling heroin.
Three weeks ago, the Lions beat this team in Minnesota. Yet Sunday, at home, they could not shut them down. What does that tell you? The Lions let Rich Gannon scramble, they let Anthony Carter catch passes, they let some guy named Allen Rice break tackles. Third down turned to first down. Over and over.
“You only have to look at my face to see how much that bothers me,” Fontes admitted. “That’s what’s killing us now. I cringe. I’m hoping it might be third down-and-40, and they might make that too.”
And here, Lions fans, is really where the problems lie. Put a sock in the offensive talk for one moment. You build NFL winners with defense. Always have. Chicago Bears of the ’80s. Pittsburgh Steelers of the ’70s. Green Bay Packers of the ’60s. It’s as old a lesson as there is. And right now, the Lions defense, on good days, is adequate, on bad days, it’s awful. And no matter what the day — even though it makes some plays — it never seems to make the play. The big sack on third down. The crushing hit that forces a fumble. The interception that preserves a victory. Chicago Bear hits. New York Giant hits.
Those things are the margin of victory.
The rest is just playing out the clock.
None of which makes Andre Ware feel any better. He answered questions after the game like a school kid explaining his side to the principal. “I had just started feeling comfortable and confident. . . . I felt I should have stayed in. . . . He (Fontes) is worried about my confidence, but to do me like that, well that shakes me more than anything. . . .”
Frustration. Anger. Depression. Andre, like a good kid, had brought his mother up from Houston for this game. After all, she was with him for the NFL draft and he was a first-round selection. Happy moment. She was with him for the Heisman Trophy announcement, and he won. Happy moment.
But life is not all happy moments. That’s the first lesson of adulthood. And for all the recent fuss, let’s remember: Andre Ware is only 22. He’s really just a kid.
You want grown-up problems? Take a look a few lockers down. Here was Bob Gagliano, holding his infant son, Gage, looking into the child’s soft face and trying to forget what had just transpired on the football field. Sunday was another nightmare for the 32-year-old Gagliano. Once again, he answered the bell for Fontes — even though he felt like saying, “You want a relief quarterback? Look in the Yellow Pages” — and he led the Lions to their only touchdown. But two ill-advised passes ended in the arms of Vikings defenders. Interceptions. One was returned for a touchdown.
“And what do you think people will remember tomorrow?” he said, sighing.
Unlike Ware, Gagliano is no kid. Unlike Ware, he doesn’t have a multi-million dollar contract. He has a wife and son to support, maybe a few years left in this league. Sunday, when he took the field, the fans booed.
Bob Gagliano did not bring his mother to the game.
“This is really frustrating,” he said.
“I’m really frustrated,” Ware said.
“It’s frustrating,” Fontes said.
And the season continues. Fontes has opened Pandora’s Box now. Should he let Ware continue his education or return to Peete to try and win? The defense
once thought it was the strong point of this team, but now it ranks near the bottom of the league. Ware has felt the first serious bump in his football joy ride. Gagliano wonders about his future. Peete is nursing a bad hamstring.
The point is, everybody’s got problems.
That’s pretty much the story of the Lions, isn’t it?
Mitch Albom will sign copies of his new book, “Live Albom II,” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at B. Dalton, Livonia Mall, and 6 p.m. Friday at Community News Center, Ann Arbor.