CINCINNATI — He began his NFL career by fumbling the snap, then picking up the ball and throwing it anyhow. The whistles blew. Some fans laughed. This is not how you want to start a multimillion dollar job. Then again, the last time Andre Ware played a game of football, Saddam Hussein was just another lunatic with a mustache.

You wanted rusty? You got rusty. About the only well-oiled parts in Ware’s debut were his legs. On the fourth play of his career he dropped back into his own end zone, came dangerously close to a safety, then dashed away for 20 yards and a first down. Then he completed a few passes.

So much for the good part. He did throw a beauty — right into the arms of a Cincinnati Bengal. And he tossed a few easy ones into the turf.

Then he got sacked.

And that was that. The coach took him out. After 40 days and 40 nights in the holdout desert, Ware played all of four minutes and 21 seconds. Our Dinner With Andre consisted of a meager appetizer, seven passes and two completions, which no doubt left fans in Detroit wondering: Ware’s the beef?

“I had a few butterflies,” Ware admitted after the game. “I expected more of myself.”

“How many plays do you know?” someone asked.

“I know all the plays,” he said.

“All the plays? In three days?”

“I know all the plays. I watched film, you know. I just need a little more time out there.”

Well. That’s why they have exhibition season. Whoops. Too bad exhibition season is over, huh? There goes Andre’s free education. In the real season, you get three days a week to practice for the upcoming team, and if the Lions spend that time giving Ware repetitions, they’re taking time away from what they should be doing — which is preparing to win the game.

Did someone say win? Too good for their own good?

Yes. The Lions won again Friday night. They finish the exhibition season a perfect 4-0. Personally, I think this is the worst thing they could have done.

Here is why: Last week, someone actually asked Wayne Fontes where the Super Bowl was this year because “he wanted to get tickets to see the Lions.”

Such insanity can be dangerous and must be treated, perhaps with a vaccination, or at least some film of the Lions defense.

In the old days, last year I think it was, the Lions couldn’t win an exhibition game. They couldn’t buy one. This was good, because then, in the regular season, when something good happened, you were pleasantly surprised. On Monday mornings you might say “Wow, the Lions completed half their passes. Wasn’t that fun?” You almost didn’t care that they lost by three touchdowns.

Now, however, the Lions are in the summer of their content. By winning, they are fooling football-starved Detroiters into thinking this will continue, unabated, right until Super Sunday.

Let me deflate that balloon with a familiar word: defense. It is the thing that wins football games in the NFL. And for all the early success of the run
‘n’ shoot this exhibition season, when this Detroit defense goes against a top quarterback — let’s say, a Boomer Esiason — trouble is brewing. There is still very little pressure. Or didn’t you see Esiason rolling around the backfield Friday night, as open as a 7-11?

The Detroit secondary is just OK. And without Jerry Ball doing his impression of a moving mountain, the defensive line is noticeably shallow. Teams will lick their chops at that in the regular season, you can count on it. Also-rans stole the thunder

But back to this quarterback thing. Ware. Rodney Peete. To be honest, the guy who looked the best on Friday was Bob Gagliano, who seems doomed to become the fifth Beatle in this rivalry. Gagliano came in for the fourth quarter, after Ware, and it looked like Joe Namath coming in after Joe Pisarcik. Nice Guy Bob drove the Lions downfield twice for two scores and the victory. For that, Fontes will pat him on the shoulder and show him the bench.

As to the starter, Peete? It wasn’t his best night, although he played more than expected. “Wayne said he was gonna leave me in until I looked sharp,” Peete said, laughing.

Well. He had set a high standard. In the last two exhibition games, every Peete possession ended with points. Friday, on seven possessions, he cashed in only twice — touchdown, field goal — and he turned the ball over on a fumble and an interception.

Don’t worry. There was nothing wrong with Peete Friday that Barry Sanders wouldn’t fix. The great one, however, spent the night pacing the sidelines — bored but healthy — which is exactly what Fontes wanted. With Sanders out, the run ‘n’ shoot is more like the shoot.

And what is it with Ware? We’ll see — although maybe not for a while. The way he zipped the ball made you wonder what he might have accomplished this season had he been in camp from the start.

But such is life with rookies. To be honest, the most outstanding one Friday was a young Bengal named James Francis, a pass-rushing linebacker who spent of the night tackling rushers, pressuring quarterbacks and knocking the football down. You might remember Francis. He was strongly considered a No. 1 draft pick by the Lions last April, before they decided to take Ware.

Francis signed with the Bengals before camp.

He’ll start next week.

He plays a mean defense.

Hmmm.

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