November 23, 2009

1995: Scott Mitchell Leads Lions Past Vikings with 410 Yards and 4 TD Passes

Quarterback Scott Mitchell had shown enough potential as a backup to Dan Marino in Miami to warrant a great deal of interest when he became a free agent after the 1993 season. The Detroit Lions won the bidding war for his services, awarding him a three-year contract worth $11 million dollars (he would stay for five seasons). At 6’6” and 240 pounds, with a strong and accurate arm, he had the tools but had problems with consistency, durability, and command of the offense during 1994.

Mitchell and the Lions got off to a 3-6 start in ’95, but then caught fire. On November 23 the record stood at 5-6 as the Minnesota Vikings (6-5) arrived for a Thanksgiving Day matchup at the Pontiac Silverdome. Detroit scored the first two touchdowns on passes from Mitchell to WR Brett Perriman covering 2 and 20 yards respectively. After the Vikings countered with a 55-yard TD pass play from QB Warren Moon to WR Jake Reed, the Lions extended their lead to 21-7 in the second quarter with Mitchell’s third TD pass of 16 yards to WR Johnnie Morton.

The second quarter turned wild as the Vikings scored two non-offensive touchdowns to knot the score at 21-21. First, WR David Palmer returned a punt 74 yards and then free safety Orlando Thomas recovered a fumble and ran it 17 yards into the end zone. The Lions re-took the lead, 24-21, thanks to a 32-yard Jason Hanson field goal, but Minnesota was back in front at the half, 28-24, due to a 10-yard Moon touchdown pass to WR Cris Carter.

After the teams traded field goals in the third quarter, Mitchell put the Lions in the lead with a 27-yard pass to WR Herman Moore that made the score 34-31. When RB Barry Sanders ran 50 yards for a touchdown with 5:18 left in the game to give Detroit a ten-point margin (41-31), it appeared that the Lions would prevail, but the result remained in doubt as Moon connected with Carter again to cut the lead to three points. A 39-yard Hanson field goal provided the final margin of the 44-38 game, but it still came down to Detroit intercepting a Moon desperation pass in the end zone on the last play to nail down the win once and for all.

In all, it was a wild offensive show as both teams combined for 919 total yards; the Lions accounted for 534 of that total. Mitchell set a new Detroit single-game passing yardage record (since broken) with 410 as he completed 30 of 45 passes. Four of them went for touchdowns, while one was intercepted. Perriman led all receivers with 12 receptions and was one of three Lions receivers to accumulate over a hundred yards, with 153. Moore had 127 yards on his 8 catches and Morton contributed 102 on 7 receptions. The ground game contributed significantly as well thanks to Sanders rushing for 138 yards on 24 carries (virtually all of which came in the second half).

For the Vikings, Warren Moon completed 30 of 47 passes for 384 yards with three TDs and two interceptions. RB Amp Lee caught the most passes with 9 for 92 yards, while WR Reed accumulated the most yards with 149 on his 6 receptions. Minnesota didn’t do as much on the ground, however, rushing for just 34 yards on 15 attempts.

It was the third of seven consecutive wins to close out the regular season for the Lions as they finished at 10-6 for second place in the NFC Central and a wild card berth; they were embarrassed by the Eagles in the first round by a score of 58-37. Minnesota ended up in fourth place in the division with an 8-8 record.

For Scott Mitchell, it was a career year as he achieved highs in pass attempts (583), completions (346), completion percentage (59.3), passing yards (4338), TD passes (32), and passer rating (92.3); the yardage and TD totals were also team records. While the season accented his strengths, his weaknesses also became apparent, especially in the postseason loss when he was benched in favor of backup Don Majkowski after throwing four interceptions.

Mitchell was helped a great deal by his outstanding receiving corps, especially when they went to three wide receivers as their basic offense. Herman Moore led the NFL with a then-record 123 receptions for 1686 yards and 14 touchdowns. Brett Perriman hauled in 108 passes for 1488 yards and another 9 scores; in combination with Moore, the 231 receptions were a record for two teammates. Johnnie Morton, in his second year, was hardly a slouch with 44 catches for 590 yards and 8 TDs, while Barry Sanders grabbed another 48 passes for 398 yards and a touchdown.

Of course, Sanders contributed most significantly on the ground, reaching the thousand-yard mark for the seventh time in as many seasons with an even 1500 yards on 314 carries with 11 TDs.

While Mitchell never again approached his 1995 numbers and would ultimately be considered a disappointment in Detroit, it is a testament to the other key offensive contributors that they expanded on their performances. Moore caught over a hundred passes in the next two seasons and again led the league in 1997. Morton stepped up and had three thousand-yard receiving seasons from 1997 to ’99 and four in five years. Perriman caught 94 passes for 1021 yards in ’96, although his career was essentially over after that. Sanders, arguably the best running back of his era, never had less than a thousand yards rushing in any of his ten seasons, and reached the 2000-yard mark in 1997.