Let’s start by saying this about Rodney Peete: He is the biggest bargain in the NFL. You don’t get starting quarterbacks for $125,000 a year. You’re lucky to get the laundry done for that. But Peete works for these wages and he hasn’t complained and he hasn’t held out. He reported to camp on time. He fought for his job. He earned it, hands down, in the last two exhibitions. This is how he earned it: Every time he trotted onto the field, he came back with points. Every time. They call that money in the bank.
For this, the Lions have told him to move over, make room for the new kid, Andre Ware, the 22-year-old with the Heisman Trophy in his closet. Oh, not this week. Not this month. Maybe not even this season — although I can’t remember the last time a first-round quarterback making more than a million sat for the entire year, can you? Someone gets antsy, the owner, the fans, the coach, it’s like buying a Porsche then leaving it in the garage. They can’t do it. They want to see the new guy, especially if the veteran makes a few mistakes. So Rodney Peete is on a tightrope now. Ware just took away his net.
Tuesday, Ware, all smiles with a new four-year contract worth an average of $1.175 million a year — or about 10 times what Peete is making — entered the Lions’ locker room and sat in the corner stall, the one next to Peete’s. He began to dress. A crowd of reporters gathered. Peete came in a minute later, with a lollipop in his mouth, reached for a shirt, then ducked away.
“They can’t move Rodney out, not the way he’s playing now,” whispered receiver Richard Johnson, eyeballing the two from about 20 feet away.
“No way,” echoed Robert Clark, sitting next to him. “And Rodney ain’t giving up the job.”
“You got that,” said Johnson.
“He’ll go out and play his butt off.”
“He’ll play his butt off.”
The question is: Will it make any difference? Talkin’ ’bout ‘my guy’
Wayne Fontes, the coach, insists that it will. He has told everyone that Peete is the starter, that Ware is just a student right now. But then, what do you expect Fontes to say? Last year, he drafted Peete in the sixth round, then smiled like a Cheshire cat. “Rodney’s my guy,” he said. But this year, when draft time came, look, there was Ware, whom Fontes had drooled over during a workout in Houston, and suddenly Fontes was saying, “Andre’s my guy.”
Then Andre held out. And here was Peete, sweating through two-a-days.
“Rodney’s my guy,” said Fontes. And then Ware came in Monday night, and Fontes popped a cigar in his mouth. So who’s the guy now?
“Whoever’s the starter,” Fontes said Tuesday, a little sheepishly,
“that’s my guy.”
OK. You can’t blame Fontes for drafting a potential superstar. And you can’t blame Ware for wanting as much cash as he can get. But where does that leave Peete — or, for that matter Bob Gagliano, who gave blood for this team last year? On the edge, that’s where. Even though Ware’s holdout leaves him miles behind everybody right now, football is still a business, and one of the rules of business is: You pay a lot of money for something, you use it. Sure, if the Lions win every game, nobody will fiddle with the starting quarterback. But that won’t happen. So ask yourself, it’s mid- to late- season, the Lions lose two in a row, Rodney looks OK, not great, and the kid, Ware, is looking good in practice. What happens? Maybe Fontes decides to try a switch. Maybe just for the second half. The kid does well. “Let’s let him start one,” says the staff.
I’ll tell you this. Once he starts, he stays. Rodney Peete better watch his knees and his hamstrings. One injury, he could become Wally Pipp. Wouldn’t it be nice?
This is unfair, but saying things are unfair in the NFL is like saying the weather is hot in Mississippi. What else is new? Peete is a good guy, great attitude, his teammates love him, he has fought a ridiculous draft selection
— he was a sixth-rounder and John Ford was a second-rounder? Go figure that one — and Peete’s playing for peanuts.
And you know what? There is not much he can do about it. “I know how things are,” Peete said Tuesday. “I understand the business. But I think I can hold off (Ware’s) challenge all year. I think I can play that well. . . . “
And how about the money?
“I think it would be a nice gesture if the Lions came to me before the season started and said, ‘Rodney, you should make what the average starter in the NFL makes.’ “
Yes. And it would be nice if I could flap my wings and fly to the moon. Peete is signed for this year, and since there is no real free agency in football, the Lions are under little pressure to reward him — especially after giving a bundle to Ware. Executive vice-president Chuck Schmidt did admit that Peete “is one of several players we’re considering adjusting . . . depending on how we do.”
We’ll see. In the meantime, the biggest bargain in football, the guy who never held out, who took the pounding last year for almost minimum football wage, prepares to start as quarterback for these 1990 Lions. And sitting right next to him, all shiny and rich, is the kid who is yet to throw an NFL pass but will likely, one day soon, put Peete out of the job. Football is a hell of a business when you think about it. It really is.