WAITING GAME : A Blitzing Ram Has Put Peete's Career on Hold

Times Staff Writer

Rodney Peete in another 12 to 15 years, by 2005 at the latest, could well be a hit television analyst, maybe the evening-news anchor.

Though he came to public attention as a USC quarterback, Peete, a communications major, has a cultured speaking voice and a pleasant way of talking in well-thought-out sentences. . . . Peete in another three to five weeks, by mid-October at the latest, could well be a pro quarterback.

Though he started the exhibition season as a National Football League rookie--a sixth-round draft choice, at that--he worked his way up last month from the fifth team to the Detroit Lions' first team. And last week, they said he would start the opener against the Phoenix Cardinals Sunday.

But it's all on hold now.

A blitzing Ram linebacker interrupted Peete's plans Saturday night at Anaheim. Sprained knee. Crutches. Wait-and-see time.

"I'll be back in a week at the earliest, five weeks at the most," he said after returning to Detroit. "It feels better already, but they tell me that you don't immediately know about these things.

"It's a disappointment, sure, a big one. But you keep living, you keep going. One good thing is that in training camp, I improved every game--every day. Once in a while, they told me that. And I felt it every day.

"If I'm not out too long, I'll pick up where I left off."

If he's not out too long.

That is the key now for Rodney Peete, quarterback prospect. Pro clubs won't wait for any man.

The NFL season is the shortest in professional sports. There are only 16 scheduled games, and the pressure on the teams and their coaches is heavy.

You can't play today, son? Then get the hell out of the way. Sit down over there. We've got the Cardinals Sunday.

Actually, in his few weeks in the Detroit organization, Peete had become a favorite of the coaches and players, just as he was at USC. It was obvious to everyone who spent a little time around the Lions that he had impressed them as a person, an athlete, a leader.

Deep down, they care about his future, but right now their future is entirely in the hands of others. Today, Rodney can't help them.

And there's so little time.

If he can make it back before he loses the edge, the touch, he had last week. . . .

If he can come back before the Lions find somebody else. . . .

If he can come back at all this year--if it really is only a sprain. . . .

Those are compelling ifs. And everything would be in his own hands now if he were a golfer, a swimmer, a tennis player.

His is a team sport, though. And as a rookie who had shown great promise but hadn't really proved anything, Peete is now at the mercy of the Lions, the fates, the unknown.

"A young quarterback doesn't lose too much in two, three weeks, maybe four," Peete's quarterback coach, Mouse Davis, said from Detroit. "But if you're a football player, you're on borrowed time if you aren't playing, if you aren't even practicing.

"You know that Rodney will stay on it mentally. Mentally, he'll be able to step right in anytime, from now to January. The problem is, there's no substitute for reps. You rust out quickly without reps."

In the language of football, reps are repetitions--doing the same little things with your hands and feet, over and over each day. It's the only known way to master the techniques of the game.

The quarterback, every day, must get down behind center and monotonously repeat every process--taking the snap, dropping back, handing off, faking, passing, everything but sacks, over and over.

Minus reps, Peete won't improve. The best he can do, for as long as he's out, is hold what he has. And after a few weeks, he can't even hold that.

"Rodney had been doing so well," said Wayne Fontes, Detroit's new coach. "He had been getting into it, getting it done. We felt comfortable with him, we had confidence in him."

For Fontes now , however, the imperative is to find another quarterback he will feel comfortable with, that he will have confidence in.

Exit Peete. Enter Bob Gagliano, whoever he is.

And if Gagliano can't cut it against the Cardinals Sunday, there will be someone else. And maybe that someone, who will be coming over in trade or on waivers, will take Fontes' team to the playoffs.

The Lions are hoping against hope that they don't have to wait for Peete.

TWO-MINUTE OFFENSE FOR ALL 60 MINUTES

In his rookie year in pro football, Peete began the season as a minor actor with a good part in a controversial new drama--the Lions' effort to bring the full-blown run 'n' shoot offense to the NFL.

The Lions are calling it the Silver Stretch offense--the SSO--but whatever the label, it can't possibly succeed in this league, most coaches say, because, basically, it's just a 60-minute version of the two-minute offense.

For years, some sports fans have suggested that a pass-oriented system capable of whizzing 80 yards in the last two minutes--of either the half or the game--ought to be used all day.

Haughtily, those in the know have said it couldn't be done.

But when another NFL season begins Sunday, the Lions will be doing it anyhow, or trying to.

And, before Peete was hurt, they expected to be doing it well. All summer, they have been manufacturing yards, if not quite enough points, with Peete and the Silver Stretch.

They led the entire league in ground gaining one week. And against the Rams Saturday night, the Lions generated more offense than they had come up with last year in any week of the regular season.

"The thing is that Rodney was on the verge of making this the high-scoring offense we always aim to get in the (run 'n' shoot)," said assistant coach Davis, the architect of the novel formation, which, on every play, anywhere on the field, rests its case on four receivers, one back, and no tight ends.

In Peete's own view, he was getting the hang of his role in what he considers the most productive of all football systems.

"I felt very good about how I was fitting in," he said. "The first step in any system is execution. The next step is getting the ball in the end zone, and it seemed to me that we were executing well on a lot of plays, all of us.

"Like anything new in football, you don't grasp (the run 'n' shoot) right off, but in the last week or two I could see that we were going to score points with this offense."

As a formation, the run 'n' shoot is designed to open up pass receivers on every play--one or more of the five eligible receivers: the running back, the two slot receivers, and the two wide receivers.

The quarterback is coached to sprint a few steps to his left or right, on each play, or occasionally roll out toward the sideline.

And his job is always the same: to see an open receiver, and throw him the ball while he's still open, before a defensive back closes in.

Davis puts it this way: "A (run 'n' shoot) quarterback needs the vision to see individuals clearly in a stormy sea of football players. It's very crowded out there. It's very angry. People are either going to make or lose hundreds of thousands of dollars (in salary) depending on what happens next.

"If you're a (run 'n' shoot) quarterback confronting this angry mix of four or five receivers and five or six or seven defensive backs, you've got to inhale the whole scene very rapidly. And Rodney showed us he has that kind of vision."

His USC coach, Larry Smith, once said that Peete's trump card was his vision, an analytical point that is still standing up.

"I've seen receivers more clearly every day that I've been out there," Peete said. "But the thing that impresses me the most is the way they get open. . . . You should see the tapes. The receivers are really open in the tapes. It's kind of humbling to the quarterback. I should be seeing them even better."

In one respect, the new Detroit offense is like all other passing offenses.

"To play quarterback today, the one thing you've got to have is the field presence to take care of the ball," Davis said. "You can't be throwing picks (interceptions) out of carelessness or after making bad reads.

"A pick that is a good defensive play, that's something else, of course. Or, maybe, when the passer is throwing the ball, their arm won't let them throw it absolutely straight. I forgive those things.

"The inexcusable thing is to misread the defense. The inexcusable thing is mental sloppiness. And one big reason that Rodney has a pro future is that he protects the ball, he takes care of it. He doesn't (give) it away."

He did throw one interception in the Ram game Saturday night, on the play he was hurt. But the Lions said there was no cause-and-effect correlation between the injury and the read or the pass or the interception.

"The ball just got away from me," said Peete.

Davis said: "The ball slipped out of Rodney's hand. The blitzer wasn't involved. He was beneath (Peete's) line of sight, crawling at him."

Thus, Peete didn't seem to be a victim of run 'n' shoot football, although it is sometimes said that quarterbacks in that offense are vulnerable to heavy blitzing. He was hurt on the kind of play in which any T-formation quarterback can be hurt--a blind-side hit on the side of the knee, delivered by a determined blitzer who, rising from the ground, remains invisible even to a man of vision.

"It was just an unfortunate accident," said Fontes, who will try again with Peete later.

"Rodney has a long way to go before he's a pro quarterback," his new coach said, evaluating his fallen starter. "But he's worth working with. Rodney is a man with composure and character, and his talent has surprised us. I think he has the magic that all good quarterbacks have."

FROM FORD TO FONTES TO MOUSE TO RODNEY

In Detroit today they are trying to pick up the pieces. They are trying to answer the unanswerable.

Will the run 'n' shoot run with just any quarterback?

If we bring in an ace from somewhere, can he learn it in time to win for us this year?

Will Peete really be back in three or four weeks, or should we forget him?

Last month when Peete was coming on, the Lions had some concerns, but no worries like today's.

"Quarterbacks are given an opportunity to excel in this offense," Peete said two weeks ago. "This offense is a quarterback's dream."

Now it can be a nightmare.

"The Lions have had five quarterbacks on the roster all summer," Detroit writer Mike O'Hara said two weeks ago. "But if they went on waivers, nobody would claim three of them (Gagliano, Rusty Hilger and Eric Hipple). The fourth guy, Chuck Long, is injured until mid-season. . . . Peete is a good prospect. Peete is a football player."

And now, Peete is missing.

The Lions, however, are used to adversity. Their owner, William Clay Ford, hasn't known many bright spots in his long stewardship.

What's ahead for him now?

His immediate future is obviously in the hands of three people. Not in alphabetical order, they are:

--Wayne Fontes, leader.

A veteran of 26 years as a defensive coach, many with John McKay at USC and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he succeeded Darryl Rogers last November. The year isn't far off when Fontes will either be hailed or hooted as the first NFL coach who was brave or rash enough to live or die with the run 'n' shoot, which, in other years, has been mainly a high school and college system.

--Mouse Davis, strategist.

Fontes' first move as an NFL coach was to call in Davis, who has spent a quarter century developing his unconventional offense. And Davis' first move was to bring in June Jones, his associate for many years, who helped him perfect a system that, like all systems, needs talent--more talent than the Lions seem to have this year.

--W. C. Ford, proprietor.

One of the Ford Motor Co. Fords, this one holds the keys to several cars and also the future of the run 'n' shoot. After any loss this season, the new offense is sure to be blamed. Only if Ford has the patience to hang in indefinitely--while the quality of the playing personnel is upgraded--can Fontes, Davis, Peete and Ford eventually make their great experiment succeed.

It can be hardly a disgrace to the Lions to remind them that, today, they're one of the NFL's worst teams. In the last three seasons, they have finished with records of 4-12, 4-11 and 5-11.

Needing four sure-handed receivers, they are hard put to field even one.

And, minus their first draft choice, unsigned Heisman Trophy winner Barry Sanders, they're conspicuously short of quality running backs, even though they require only one.

Do they even need one? Isn't the run 'n' shoot a passing formation?

"That's one of the myths about it," said Davis, who first came to national attention in the late 1970s when his Portland State teams swept past Cal Poly Pomona, 93-7, and Delaware State, 105-0.

"We think it's both a passers' and runners' offense. It gives the running back more opportunity than he has in any other system.

"Most football teams try to establish the run first. In our system, we pass to get the run--which means that when (the defense) overplays the pass, our runner often has a chance to break a big one."

To some critics, the most controversial aspect of Mouse Davis football is that he never hires a tight end.

He insists that if a tight end is large enough to block effectively, he's too clumsy to help spread the secondary as a receiver.

"You're less likely to get a great player at tight end than any other position," Davis said. "The credentials are impossible--a very big, very strong, very fast guy who can block like an offensive tackle and catch like a wide receiver.

"If you want another blocker on the goal line, we recommend putting in an offensive lineman. If you're looking for a receiver, put in another wide receiver."

What if you want another pass-protection blocker? Would Peete have been injured on a different kind of one-back team?

The Washington Redskins, for example, line up with one back and two tight ends.

Do quarterbacks live longer on tight-end teams?

Davis doesn't support that idea--and neither do the statistics. In percentage terms, more quarterbacks are hurt in drop-back passing pockets than anywhere else.

Run 'n' shoot quarterbacks are usually off to one side, where they can only be hit from one side. Drop-back passers are hit from all directions.

Peete was unlucky.

So were the Lions.

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