March 6, 2011

1994: Scott Mitchell Signs with Lions

On March 6, 1994 the Detroit Lions signed unrestricted free agent QB Scott Mitchell to a three-year, $11 million contract. Chosen by the Dolphins in the fourth round of the 1990 NFL draft, Mitchell had spent three quiet years as the little-used backup to durable star QB Dan Marino. But in 1993, Marino went down for the season with a torn Achilles tendon in the fifth game, and Mitchell got his chance.

Initially, the lefthander made the most of the opportunity, looking good in four starts before suffering a shoulder injury, and struggling in three starts when he returned. Miami had risen to 9-2 before losing the last five games to miss the postseason. While Mitchell had done well enough to draw interest (he ended up ranking fifth in passing in the AFC with an 84.2 rating), there were also questions regarding how well he might perform as the starting quarterback over a full season.

The Vikings were the first team to offer Mitchell a contract, and the young quarterback also met with the Saints and Rams before deciding on Detroit. “I think we were offering a crazy deal, but the Lions offered an insane deal,” said Vikings VP and chief contract negotiator Jeff Diamond (they instead obtained the proven veteran QB Warren Moon from the Oilers).

“It’s unfortunate that I’m leaving Miami, but I don’t leave behind any hard feelings, “said Mitchell. “I wanted a chance to play and be the regular guy, the starter, and I knew I wasn't going to get that here. But the Dolphins gave me a chance to become a good football player and prove myself in the league, and I'm grateful for that.”

The Lions had won the NFC Central with a 10-6 record in ’93, their second division title in three seasons. However, the offense was more centered around star RB Barry Sanders than anyone who had played quarterback during that period – indeed, Head Coach Wayne Fontes had taken much criticism for his handling of quarterbacks. Erik Kramer was the most successful, leading the Lions to the NFC Championship game following the 1991 season and spurring the run to the playoffs in ’93.

But Kramer’s hold on the starting job had been tenuous and he split time with Rodney Peete and Andre Ware, who proved to be a first-round bust. Kramer left Detroit for the Bears as a free agent, and Peete and Ware were free agents that the team was not interested in re-signing (Peete signed with Dallas to back up Troy Aikman for a year, and Ware went to the Raiders and was never activated). At the time of the signing, Chuck Long, the long-forgotten 1986 first round draft choice out of Iowa, was the only quarterback on the roster, but after looking at veteran free agents Sean Salisbury and Chris Miller, 36-year-old veteran Dave Krieg was brought in to back up Mitchell.

Mitchell had ideal size at 6’5” and 230 pounds, and proved to be tough and intelligent. He also suffered through a difficult first season in Detroit. After a good opening-game outing against the Falcons, he injured his shoulder in a rough contest the following week at Minnesota and, after developing tendinitis, struggled with his passing. Mitchell went down for good late in the second quarter of a losing game at Green Bay in Week 10 (the club’s ninth game). He ended up completing just 48.4 percent of his passes for 1456 yards (5.9 yards per attempt) and 10 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. The Lions were 4-5 after losing to the Packers, but Krieg stepped in and performed very well as the team won five of its last seven games to grab the last NFC wild card spot with a 9-7 tally (they were also helped by Barry Sanders putting together his best season yet, as he led the league with 1883 yards rushing). They lost once again to Green Bay in the first round of the playoffs.

There was no quarterback controversy going into 1995, as the Lions let Krieg move on to Arizona as a free agent. Still, they lost their first three games, and were 3-6 after nine contests, but caught fire and won seven straight to close out the regular season and once again advance into the playoffs. Mitchell passed for a team-record 4338 yards and 32 touchdowns, as opposed to just 12 interceptions. Both starting wide receivers caught over a hundred passes, with Herman Moore leading the league with a then-record 123 receptions for 1686 yards and 14 touchdowns and Brett Perriman contributing 108 for 1488 yards and nine TDs. Sanders caught 48 passes in addition to running for 1500 yards.

But it all came crashing down in a shocking 58-37 loss to the Eagles in the Wild Card playoff round – it wasn’t even that close, as Philadelphia had a 51-7 lead midway through the third quarter. Mitchell had a dreadful outing and was pulled in favor of backup Don Majkowski, who helped to make the score respectable with three touchdown passes.

The Lions were a 5-11 team in ’96, and Mitchell appeared to regress. He threw for 2917 yards with 17 TDs and 17 interceptions, but signed a contract extension to remain in Detroit. Fontes was fired as head coach and, with the coming of Head Coach Bobby Ross and offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom, it was hoped that Mitchell would again rebound. Both Mitchell and the Lions improved, with the quarterback throwing for 3484 yards and having a better touchdown-to-interception ratio (19 to 14) and the team returning to the playoffs with a 9-7 tally. But once again they came up short in the first round, this time against the Buccaneers, and Mitchell was benched in favor of rookie QB Charlie Batch in 1998. He was dealt to the Baltimore Ravens after the season, and his career continued on its descent. After a year with the Ravens and two as a backup in Cincinnati, it came to an end.

Overall in Detroit, Mitchell passed for 12,647 yards with 79 touchdowns and 57 interceptions, but he had a losing record as the starting quarterback (27-30) and played poorly in his postseason appearances. Immobile and inconsistent, in only one season did he approach the level of performance anticipated when he signed the big free agent contract in ’94.