In four seasons with the Washington Redskins, quarterback Gus Frerotte watched his star rise, then fall. In just eight games as a backup with the Detroit Lions, he has won notice for leading two late-game comebacks.
His performances have provided a bit of redemption for a player that was the Redskins' starter for more than three seasons before being benched twice last season and released this year.
After the Lions' usual starter, Charlie Batch, left last week's game against St. Louis with an injured right thumb, Frerotte stepped in. He threw for two touchdowns and 209 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown pass to Johnnie Morton with 28 seconds left to lift the Lions to a 31-27 victory over the Rams. The win put the Lions (6-2) alone atop the NFL's tightest division, the NFC Central.
"When Gus is in, even though he's the supposed backup, he's in there as if he's the starting quarterback," Morton said. "You could just tell how he had done it before. It's like a feeling you get."
Morton has that feeling for a reason. He saw Frerotte complete five passes in a row on the Lions' game-winning drive against the Vikings on Oct. 17. He saw Frerotte convert on fourth and 26 deep in his own territory Sunday just before throwing him the game-winning score.
Morton didn't see all of Frerotte's exploits with the Redskins, his rise from seventh-round draft pick to a starter four games into his rookie season. He didn't see the Redskins' season opener in 1995, when Frerotte threw the longest touchdown pass of his career--a 73-yarder that helped the Redskins top the Arizona Cardinals.
However, Morton knows that whichever quarterback lines up next to him in the huddle will carry himself with the poise and confidence of a starter--which is precisely what Frerotte hopes to be again.
If Frerotte starts Sunday at Arizona--and this looks more and more likely every day Batch doesn't practice--he'll become better known here, but only by name. He said he can go out in public without being recognized--something he rarely was able to do in Washington.
Frerotte, 28, might not be anybody's backup next year. He can become a free agent if he repays a portion of the signing bonus on his three-year contract.
"I mean, who wants to be a backup their entire life?" he said. Though he admits he was more tense the night before games when he was the Redskins' starter, he wouldn't trade a starting role for the comfort of the bench.
"Oh yeah, you know you're starting, you're thinking about what you have to do and what's going on a lot more," he said. "If I'm not playing, I get to the hotel, you know, go to bed, no worries, all nice and relaxed."
During the 1996 season with the Redskins, he started every game, had the league's third-best quarterback rating and went to the Pro Bowl. The year after, Frerotte seemed on the verge of joining the league's elite quarterbacks, but he had an erratic season, with the Redskins going 8-7-1 and missing the playoffs.
His career in Washington unraveled in 1998, when he threw two interceptions in a season-opening loss to the New York Giants and was benched by Coach Norv Turner in favor of Trent Green. Reinstalled as the starter in the seventh game, Frerotte was a dismal 10 of 26 for 117 yards in a 41-7 loss to Minnesota and didn't get into another game that season. He was released in February and signed as a free agent with Detroit the following month.
With the Lions, Frerotte has completed 27 of 40 passes for 349 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. On Sunday against the Rams, with Detroit trailing 27-24 with 1:17 remaining, he led the Lions 77 yards in 10 plays. On fourth and 26 from their 21, Frerotte looked off the safety and found wide receiver Germane Crowell down the left sideline for 57 yards. Frerotte capped the drive by connecting with Morton on the winning touchdown pass.
That comeback may have helped kick-start a personal one for Frerotte. It may also have gotten the attention of teams who will need a starter next season.
"Sometimes you go up and you have to go back down and come up again," he said.