Wayne Fontes said it was never his intention to revolutionize the game. He was 48 when the Detroit Lions made him their 17th head coach, and he knew the history of a franchise that had had five straight losing seasons and played eight playoff games in 31 years.

Fontes could make history later. At the beginning, he wanted to survive, which meant filling some of the thousands of empty seats in the Silverdome and somehow competing with an undermanned and undersized team.

Enter the "Silver Stretch" offense.

"Everyone calls me a riverboat gambler for trying it," he said, "but I thought it was the quickest way for us to get some life back in the program."

It was nothing if not daring and nothing if not different. Fontes hired former USFL head coach Mouse Davis, who had run all sorts of weird passing schemes during a 30-year career with various high school, college and pro teams.

Fontes told Davis to make the Detroit offense whatever he wanted, and Davis used the scheme he had installed for Jim Kelly and the USFL Houston Gamblers. Its football name is the run-and-shoot -- although the Lions prefer Silver Stretch -- and its premise differs from anything the NFL has seen before.

At the very least, it has livened up what might have been a depressing week for the Washington Redskins, who play the Lions Sunday afternoon in the Silverdome.

They're coming off another close loss to the New York Giants, but in a week that would be perfect for sulking, they have had something new thrown into their defensive playbooks.

They are about to play an offense that has no tight ends and not much of a running game despite the presence of second-year man Barry Sanders, who the Redskins say is as good as any running back they have ever seen.

The Lions do run, but they are mostly draw plays and options. And the run is used to set up the pass. The Lions will open Sunday's game with four wide receivers, and they run routes based on what the defense gives them.

The quarterback rolls out and throws on the run. It's an offense of draws, screens, traps and options. It's lights and bells and gadgets, and the only thing missing is success in the NFL. Which may be another matter entirely.

"It'll be a fun game for us," said Richie Petitbon, Redskins assistant coach/defense. "It's something new. We'll roll the dice a few times and who knows? We might get a few sevens."

The Redskins are spending a week on a defense they haven't used before and might never use again. Petitbon is keeping his strategy to himself and his players, but he'll probably add cornerbacks Brian Davis and Alvoid Mays to the starting lineup and take out a couple of his regulars, perhaps a safety and a linebacker.

He'll warn his players about the dangers of missed tackles and emphasize that while the Lions will gain some yards and make some plays, it is important not to get frustrated and let a 10-yard route turn into a 60-yard route.

"We'll have to be up and about mentally," Redskins cornerback Darrell Green said. "The challenge really won't be physical because it's our guys covering their guys. The only thing is that there'll be times when we're going to have a little guy tackling Barry Sanders and that can be tricky."

The Lions say it's the offense of the future, but is it? Warren Moon and the Houston Oilers use it and are first in the NFL in yards (377 a game) and second in touchdowns (22), but they are only 4-4.

Some NFL scouts say the Oilers may be special because Moon is special and that he might succeed in any offense. It hasn't worked so well for the Lions, who have three young quarterbacks -- Rodney Peete (who will start), Bob Gagliano and No. 1 pick Andre Ware -- and four receivers who were let go by other teams (Robert Clark, Richard Johnson, Aubrey Matthews and Terry Greer).

Even with Sanders, the Lions are the NFL's 17th-ranked offense and that's bad news for a team with the 25th-ranked defense.

In fact, the Redskins say the key to Sunday's game may not be stopping the run-and-shoot at all, but in moving the ball, controlling the clock and keeping the Silver Stretch idling in the garage for long stretches.

Other coaches have questioned the offense in more basic ways. They say it exposes the quarterback to contact too often and that it may not be effective in bad weather games when ball control is essential.

"Can you run the clock when you've got a lead?" one NFL executive asked. "Can you score inside the 20 with it? Using four wide receivers is nothing new, but you're talking about a quarterback rolling out and reading everything on the run."

Said New York Giants General Manager George Young: "Somebody has got to win something with it. Then it will get our attention. One breakdown and you can lose your quarterback. I don't consider that good social security."

Teams have seen so little of it that there is not yet a consensus on how to defense it. Most teams have played four cornerbacks, but there are other questions about how much pressure you can put on a quarterback and whether you should even attempt pressure at all.

The wild card is Sanders. The Redskins say he may be the best running back they've ever seen, that he's a wondrous package of strength, speed and elusiveness.

He's so good that scouts dream of how much better he might be in an I-formation, yet the Lions sometimes seem to forget about him. He went 25 minutes without touching the ball in an opening loss to Tampa Bay, and last week in a victory at New Orleans he got just 10 carries for 12 yards. He has had more than 18 carries only once, but still is third in the NFC in rushing with 462 yards. Sanders led the NFC in rushing as a rookie last season.

"The offense makes you defense the whole field," Petitbon said. "Plus, when you have a running back like Barry Sanders, it presents a problem. It's just coming down to our individuals making plays on their individuals."

Fontes said he liked the offense because it was new, and it opened up the game and would interest fans who might have been put off by one championship in 38 years. He said it might also be the best way to take an undertalented team -- especially in the offensive line -- and have it compete with the big boys.

"They can do more with less because they're not trying to blow you off the ball," Petitbon said. "They don't have to hold their blocks as long."

Redskins defensive tackle Eric Williams, who played for the Lions during the birth of the run-and-shoot, said it's so different than anything teams have seen before that it surely will cause some problems.

"It's still like Chinese to me," he said. "You've got to be disciplined and not be too fast off the ball, which is a change. They run so many draws and screens that you've got to give things a chance to develop. It's different for a defense because you line up and their offensive linemen are split three feet apart. It looks enticing, but it's never there for you. When you think you have them, you don't."