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GREAT SCOTT THE DIFFERENCE IN LIONS’ SURGE

by | Dec 8, 1995 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Let’s be honest. Football may be a team game in spirit, but in today’s NFL, one man is often the difference between winning and losing.

That man is the quarterback.

It hasn’t always been this way. Once blockers and running backs were more important than the guy slinging the ball. But today, with teams passing on what used to be running plays, a hot quarterback is worth four wheels and an engine. He’s the green light, the Pentium chip, the rudder of the ship. If the rudder breaks, the ship goes awry.

Look around the NFL. When Dan Marino went down, the Dolphins wilted. When Philadelphia made a quarterback change, the Eagles began to win. Brett Favre is hot? Green Bay is 9-4. Dave Brown is cold? The Giants are 4-9. Dallas without Troy Aikman isn’t Dallas. Denver without John Elway couldn’t win a coin toss.

Which brings us to Detroit, and Scott Mitchell, who, just a few weeks ago, was hearing boos at the Silverdome. That, of course, was during the Lions’
“losing” period. (The Lions’ season can now be broken down like Picasso’s painting career, his “blue” period, his “rose” period — their “losing” period, their “winning” period.)

This happier era began, not coincidentally, when Mitchell caught fire.

It will continue as long as he burns.

“Yeah, it’s a little strange,” Mitchell says with his Tom Cruise grin when asked to compare the booing with the cheering. “I can’t lie and say I didn’t hear when they were booing me. I’ve never been booed in my life.

“That’s why I’m trying to have an even temperament. I like what’s happening now. But I learned last year. Things can change at the drop of a hat.”

Hmm. Nobody drop your hat.

Knowledge is comfort

This whole streak is perched on Mitchell’s shoulders. He is like the king on a chess board, like a Pac-Man that gobbles the dots in a video game. Never mind what Barry Sanders is doing, or how acrobatic Herman Moore and Brett Perriman can be. If Mitchell is off his game, it all falls apart.

The reason the Lions have been able to win four in a row is that Mitchell has been the threat he was supposed to be when the Lions signed him. Teams can no longer stack defenders like artillery tanks to stop Sanders; if they do, Mitchell simply does as he did all night Monday against Chicago — fires to a receiver in single coverage. This is like someone holding down your right arm while you smack them with your left.

Earlier in the year Mitchell, 27, wasn’t always delivering the smack. He would miss people. He would throw to the wrong guy. It is no accident that during all seven of the Lions’ wins this season, Mitchell completed over 60 percent of his passes, and in their six losses he did it just once.

“Are you more comfortable now?” he is asked.

“Yeah, I know the people around me better.”

Mitchell is a big guy, he throws with zip, and he sweats like a sharecropper. By the first quarter, the back of his neck is glistening, so you know he’s trying hard out there. Yes, he runs like a major appliance on a push cart, but everyone knew that. The only question left for his critics is leadership — what some call his swagger.

He may have more than meets the eye.

Quiet demeanor deceiving

“Scott isn’t one of those ‘shut up and listen to me’ quarterbacks,” says Perriman. I go to Perriman for quarterback evaluations because not only has he snagged NFL passes from Mitchell, Rodney Peete, Erik Kramer, Andre Ware and Bobby Hebert, but in college he caught Bernie Kosar, Steve Walsh and Vinny Testaverde.

“Kosar and Walsh, they’re take-charge guys. Real vocal. Testaverde lets his

talent do the talking. Scott is steady. He only shows his emotion after the drive is over. Like you can get a 20-yard completion, another 20-yard completion, nothing. But once you get in the end zone, he’s like ‘Yes! yes!’

“When I caught that pass (a diving reception that set up a touchdown) against Tampa Bay? Aw, man, Scott went crazy. He came running up screaming,
‘What a catch! What an unbelievable catch!’ I was like, what’s he yelling about my catch for? He should be saying, ‘What a pass!’ “

Mitchell is not a snarler like Dan Marino, the man he worked behind in Miami. He is not a legend like Joe Montana, who doesn’t even have to speak. Mitchell is a likable fellow, a former Eagle scout, a graduate of a Utah college who doesn’t curse very often.

You know what? Steve Young was all those things. The point with Mitchell is, he’s still in his second year on the job. Forget the four seasons in Miami, where he played seven games. That was summer stock. He is in charge here, gaining confidence with each win. He manages to handle Moore, Perriman and Johnnie Morton telling him they’re open on every play. That can’t be easy.

Personally, I’d like to see him throw his weight around a little more, but, hey, I come from the city. We do that stuff.

“I just try to be myself,” Mitchell says. “I’m not a rah-rah guy, but I don’t take any crap from anyone.”

He said crap?

Well. You see how things change? The Lions are on a terrific roll. I have no idea how long it will last. I do know when it will end. It will end when Mitchell has a bad game.

No one here is in any hurry.

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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