Football is a game that takes hours to play but is defined by seconds. A fumble. A slip. A snap decision. You add those moments together and more than any statistic, they tell you who won. Here was Scott Mitchell, on the ledge of such a moment, late in the game, his debut in Detroit, trailing by a touchdown, his knee throbbing from an earlier collision and the new radio speaker in his helmet squawking like some old Russian telephone.
Also, it was fourth down.
And they were using their last time-out.
“Let’s pass it,” one of the coaches said.
“No, his leg’s hurt. We should run it.”
“I’m OK,” Mitchell interjected. “Just call it, I’ll throw it.”
Fourth-and-1. They were throwing the football. That alone will shake the trees of longtime fans. The idea was to get the first down, maybe reach sideline and stop the clock. That was the idea. Here was the reality: Mitchell dropped back, looked, and the receivers were covered. There was open space in front of him, tempting, tempting . . .
“I couldn’t believe we were passing it,” Brett Perriman, standing on the sidelines, would later say. “I was like, ‘You sure y’all don’t want to run the ball?’ Then, when I saw Scott with open field, I was yelling ‘Run it! Run it!’ Then I heard the crowd roar and I figured, well, he must have found somebody.”
The somebody he found was tight end Rodney Holman, who hadn’t caught a ball all day. He found him over the middle, the danger zone, defenders all around. Mitchell didn’t flinch. He lifted the moment off the shelf of Lions history — where it would have been an incomplete pass or an interception — and placed it neatly inside his own little cabinet. Perfect throw. First down. Still alive.
One moment. No ghosts to fear here
In the stands, Kim Mitchell, Scott’s wife of six years, had her eyes closed and was working off sound. A good sound, cheering, meant success. A bad sound meant, well, you know. This was more than just a football game for the Mitchell family. This was the start of a new job, a new city, a new position. True, Scott Mitchell had started NFL games before; seven to be exact. Seven in four years. They were all in Miami. They were all as second fiddle to Dan Marino, one of the greatest ever to play the game. “Even when Scott threw touchdowns there,” Kim Mitchell would later say, “it was always a little like,
‘Well, Dan would have thrown it this way . . .’ “
No nostalgia here. The less Scott Mitchell resembled previous Lions quarterbacks, the more Detroit liked him.
So you understood the roars when, two plays after his miracle to Holman, Mitchell planted, cocked his arm, pulled the ball back, then rifled a pass into the stomach of Anthony Carter cutting across the end zone. Carter was surrounded. But that pass would have fit inside a baseball strike zone.
Touchdown. Tie game.
By now, the heat was rising. This is how football works. One spark ignites a flame. So the Lions’ defense, which had been shredded like jungle leaves by a machete quarterback named Jeff George, suddenly found resistance. And it stopped the Falcons on their first possession of overtime. It was again time for Mitchell. The last time, now.
He limped out. Dropped back. And on first down, lofted a strike to Perriman, down the middle, for 30 yards and sniffing distance of the winning field goal. Game over.
Moment number three. He won with character, not stats
“Six years ago, when I took over, I said I wanted to bring character guys into this team,” Wayne Fontes boasted after Detroit took this season opener from Atlanta, 31-28. “This is the kind of character we’re talking about.”
Not statistics. What do statistics mean? In statistics, Mitchell was outshone by George, who was molten hot in the second half and finished with 281 yards and three touchdowns. But defining moments? Here, Mitchell would not have his thunder stolen. Enough of the shadows. He grabbed Sunday’s canvas and signed it in indelible ink.
This, more than anything, is what fans will take from the game — how different Mitchell seemed from shaky quarterbacks of the past. Sure, there were other critical moments: Jason Hanson’s tackle that saved a possible winning kick return; Atlanta’s Norm Johnson missing a 52-yard field goal at the end of regulation; Hanson’s 37-yard boot to win it.
But Mitchell. They will talk about Mitchell. The surety of his passing. The swagger behind his decisions. To him, it might just be the way you play football. But then, he has been watching Dan Marino for four years, while we’ve been watching the Three Stooges.
“I can’t say it feels better than the wins in Miami,” Mitchell said, “but it feels good.”
His voice was calm and light, the way his teammates said it sounded in the huddle during those mad final minutes. Does this guarantee a winning season? Of course not. It is merely a sign. The right sign. A critical player was measured by the sum of his moments, and the sum came up shining.
“I feel good, but the nature of pro football is to smell the roses in a short period of time,” Mitchell said. “We still have 15 games to go.”
He quickly added, “. . . and then some.”