WHAT A SAD COMMENTARY THAT LIONS ARE HAPPY

Wayne Fontes entered his office and sifted through the congratulatory messages on his desk. Chris Spielman. Barry Sanders. The phone rang and Fontes picked it up.

“Hello, Mike! . . . Oh, thank you!”

Mike Holmgren, coach of Green Bay.

“I appreciate it, Mike. . . . Hey, go down to Dallas and kick their butts, OK?”

Fontes hung up, held out his arms. “See? The other coaches call. They’re happy for me.”

Perhaps. Then again, any Packers coach would be happy to see Fontes get his contract extended — because the longer Fontes coaches, the more Green Bay seems to win in the playoffs.

What I’m saying is, like life itself, this whole thing depends on where you sit — making Fontes head honcho until 1997, despite a 1994 finish that was no better than 1993, and a record that was a little worse.

Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t. But before you jump off a building, remember this:

If a player fumbles, blame the player. If the scheme is bad, blame the coach. If the talent is weak, blame the GM.

And if you don’t like the man hired to run the team, don’t blame that man
— blame the owner.

William Clay Ford.

Who was playing golf somewhere when the news was announced. More mediocrity likely

Honestly, now. What did you think Ford would do? Fire Fontes and hire Jimmy Johnson — a guy he’d have to pay $4 million a year plus perks? Fire Fontes and hire Bill Walsh, a guy he’d have to give $3 million a year plus personnel control? Fire Fontes and hire Joe Gibbs, Dick Vermeil or any other high- priced, Super Bowl-experienced coach out there?

Forget it. Ford has never paid big money for a coach, and he wouldn’t start now. He has never handed over the front office reins to a coach — let alone a percentage of the team — and he wouldn’t start now.

So his options were these: an assistant coach, a college coach, a castoff
— or Fontes, a guy who has taken his team to the playoffs three of the six years he has been here.

For Ford, the choice was obvious. After all, Fontes may only have improved things from “bad” to “pretty good,” but in this owner’s eyes — and remember, this is the man who hired the where-are-they-now crew of Darryl Rogers, Monte Clark, Tommy Hudspeth and Rick Forzano — well, Fontes is, simply put, the best coach he has ever hired.

Sort of like saying “the best movie Andrew Dice Clay ever made,” isn’t it?

Listen. Six years ago, in Dallas, Jimmy Johnson was hired by Jerry Jones the same time Fontes was hired by Ford. And while Wayne was building a 4-12 team into an eventual division champion, Johnson turned the 1-15 Cowboys into back-to-back Super Bowl kings.

Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Bucs continued to wallow in the NFL basement.

So what happens? Johnson’s ego clashes with Jones’, and even Super Bowl success can’t keep them together. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay, happy to win a few games in a row, plans to keep its coach, Sam Wyche.

My point? Some franchises are content with mediocrity, and others aren’t satisfied with greatness. It is the reason Tampa Bay and Dallas are where they are today.

And it is likely the reason we will see a few more 9-7, 10-6 or 8-8 seasons around here in Detroit. The owner is content

At his press conference Thursday, Fontes said: “I have to now evaluate our team with teams like the 49ers or the Cowboys. . . . What are they doing that we’re not doing?”

Well, for one thing, they don’t practice in their parking lot. They don’t use first-round draft picks on quarterbacks who now play in Canada. They don’t hire — then fire — two offensive coordinators and one defensive coordinator. They don’t trade for a malcontent like Pat Swilling.

Thursday, Fontes talked about the shortcomings of the Lions’ season. “If Dave Krieg hits Herman Moore with that slant pass . . . if we get a guy called inbounds instead of out of bounds.”

Yeah. And if pigs had wings. . . .

I remember asking Johnson once how he built the Cowboys so quickly. “I only want players who make plays,” he said. “I don’t care about size or speed. I want proof they make plays when it counts.”

That’s called performance. When you judge a team that way, you succeed or you rip it up. When you judge a team by its past, well, anything can look good.

So is Wayne Fontes a bad coach? Not at all. Is he great? No, he is not. Does he dance around, change his mind, have enormous patience, misuse Barry Sanders, misjudge quarterbacks, motivate in some games, not motivate in others, overestimate draft picks, get judged too harshly, get blamed for the past, win some big games, lose some others?

Yes, yes, and so what? You weren’t hiring him, and I wasn’t hiring him. He makes Ford happy, that’s what counts. If the owner were really interested in what you thought, he would have asked.

“Were you ever worried about being rehired?”

“I never had a doubt,” Fontes said.

What else do you need to know? These are the Lions — better than they used to be, still not where you want them. Not the worst. Not the best. And headed into 1995 with the same leadership as last year.

Maybe you like it, maybe you don’t. But know this:

At least one man in Green Bay is happy.

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