“Wayne Fontes is an idiot!”
“Wayne Fontes is a genius!”
Detroit Lions fans remember those days. And on the radio, depending on the week, those are the phrases you heard.
I remember watching games from age 8-15 trying to figure out which one Fontes was. And it was really difficult to tell at times.
But it has been 20 years since Fontes coached in Detroit, and looking back, he was neither an idiot nor a genius. But he was the best coach the Lions have had in the Super Bowl era.
Nobody seemed to think so at the time, and it is also a sad commentary on the coaches that have been on the Lions sidelines for the past two decades.
After 20 years, it is still difficult to remember how much success Fontes had because we remember his final season at the Silverdome.
The Lions finished 5-11 in 1996, last in the division, and it was a significant dropoff from the previous three seasons where the Lions were a playoff team.
In 1996, the Lions were outscored 368-302. They defeated Tampa Bay twice, Seattle, Atlanta and Chicago. The 35-16 win over the Bears was the lone quality win for the Lions – only because it was against a rival. All five wins came against teams with losing records.
There were just too many mistakes. Maligned quarterback Scott Mitchell had 17 touchdown passes but 17 interceptions. His replacement Don Majkowski had three touchdowns and three interceptions. You aren’t going to win many games if those totals are the same.
Ironically, it was one of the best seasons in the legendary career of Barry Sanders. He had 307 carries for 1,553 yards and 11 touchdowns. He averaged 5.1 yards per carry, which should have led to a lot of first downs and a lot of touchdowns but somehow the Lions wasted his stunning season — and it cost Fontes his job.
The Lions had made the playoffs in four of the previous five seasons before 1996, winning the division in 1991 (12-4) and in 1993 (10-6), while earning wild card spots in 1994 (9-7) and 1995 (10-6). Of course, the knock on Fontes was that outside of making the NFC championship game in 1991, the Lions didn’t win a playoff game in his other three appearances — and consequently haven’t won one since.
The Lions have had just seven 10-plus win seasons in the Super Bowl era and Fontes has three of them, leading the Lions to four playoff appearances.
The sudden, sharp decline was too much in 1996 and Bobby Ross took over. He led the team to two playoff appearances, with the team that Fontes helped mold, but then Barry retired and soon after the Lions went into a playoff abyss.
Was firing Fontes the reason for this abyss?
Of course not. He was a good coach but not a great coach (no one cared about his players more) and the Lions wanted to try and spark the team to the next level while Barry Sanders, Herman Moore, Bennie Blades and what was left from the core of the division title teams was still wearing the Honolulu Blue. But it was the end of the most successful run the Lions have put together in the Super Bowl era.
Whether he was an idiot or a genius, Lions fans are hoping to get back to consistent winning the way it was in the Wayne Fontes era — at least in the regular season.