In his return to the nation's capital, Gus Frerotte could have guessed what kind of day it would be when Washington Redskins linebacker Greg Jones was allowed to break free for a clean, hard shot on the first play from scrimmage. As Frerotte picked himself off the turf, he looked down and saw the pinkie finger on his left hand was sticking grotesquely out of place.
After a running play, he calmly called a timeout, got the finger shoved back into place and taped up before going about the business of quarterbacking the Detroit Lions in yesterday's NFC first-round playoff game at FedEx Field.
Frerotte, who throws with his right hand, nonetheless never did recover from that opening misplay and neither did the Lions, who were overwhelmed in falling behind by 27 points in the first half on their way to a 27-13 loss in front of 79,411 roaring fans.
That crowd included 45 friends and family members on Frerotte's lengthy ticket list as a return to Washington stirred strange emotions and pleasant memories for the former Redskins quarterback. He laughed off the dozens of signs inviting him to butt his head against the stadium wall--reminding him of his most embarrassing NFL moment, a celebratory head butt that forced him out of a 1997 game against the New York Giants.
Frerotte had more trouble laughing at the fan who tossed a beer in his face as he walked off the field after the game.
But he offered a calm and reasoned postgame analysis of a contest that was decided long before halftime. With the Redskins scoring on their first four possessions and with the Lions unable to muster a running game, Frerotte was forced to throw, throw, throw. That strategy allowed the Redskins to rush, rush, rush, and they harassed him into a miserable day, sacking him five times and intercepting him twice.
"We just can't be one-dimensional," Lions Coach Bobby Ross said, "and that's what we were today. At times, Gus didn't even have a chance to turn around. We took a good old-fashioned beating."
Frerotte's friend and former mentor, Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen, agreed with that assessment, saying: "Gus couldn't do it all. It wouldn't have made any difference if Joe Montana had played quarterback for the Lions."
Frerotte had hoped for more as he returned to play against the team with which he spent his first five seasons. He started 44 games for the Redskins in those five seasons, but was released after losing his job last season.
If he'd hoped to write a storybook chapter in his return, he found out otherwise early in the game. The Lions generated only 45 rushing yards the entire game and with the Redskins running up a 17-0 lead by early in the second quarter, Frerotte had a tough day.
"When you have to throw it every down, they're going to come flying at you," he said. "It's like a big buffet for defensive linemen. We couldn't do anything about their pressure. After a while, they could just pin their ears back and come after us like bulls. You've just got to have time to get your feet set. A lot of times I was throwing it blindly. It was bouncing off helmets, getting tipped, you name it."
His mother and an assortment of other family members had traveled from Pittsburgh for the game. As soon as they stepped into the stadium, they surely saw the dozens of posters featuring bull's-eyes in case Frerotte decided to butt another stadium wall.
"I just laughed," he said. "I couldn't believe so many people wasted their time. It just cracks me up. I mean, do they think those signs are going to make me play bad?"
The Redskins took care of that themselves in a performance that Detroit defensive end Robert Porcher called "extremely embarrassing." But Frerotte went the distance despite a heavy pass rush that got him knocked around from start to finish. He completed 21 of 46 passes for 251 yards and a touchdown.
With yesterday's defeat, Frerotte began an important offseason. He'll exercise an option that will allow him to become a free agent, and with injured Charlie Batch virtually assured of being the Detroit starter next season, Frerotte will be looking for a new opportunity.
"I think I managed to regroup this season," he said. "It was a hard year, but I made a lot of friends in Detroit. I don't know what's going to happen, but I'll weigh all my options and decide what's best for me and the family."
A Cold Den
The Detroit Lions have not fared well when visiting the nation's capital as well as in the postseason. A look inside the numbers:
0-20 in games played in Washington
0-3 in playoff games in Washington
0-6 in previous six playoff games overall, dating from 1991, a 41-10 loss at Washington in the NFC championship game.
1 First down rushing in yesterday's loss to the Redskins, which ties a playoff record shared by many teams.