Tired of being blamed for Lions’ shortcomings, Scott Mitchell sets the record straight

Tired of being blamed for Lions’ shortcomings, Scott Mitchell sets the record straight
Tired of being blamed for Lions’ shortcomings, Scott Mitchell sets the record straight

SALT LAKE CITY — Scott Mitchell sinks into the soft gray sectional at 1 a.m.

Hey look, Barry Sanders is on television. It’s a promo for “Bye Bye Barry,” a documentary that debuted on Amazon Prime one hour earlier.

Watching Sanders was always a thrill, even when he was a teammate. Sometimes Mitchell was criticized for doing just that rather than following through with his play fake after handing off. The way Sanders moved was mesmerizing, and Mitchell couldn’t help himself.

Now the 56-year-old has time to watch television at 1 a.m. A few weeks earlier, he was let go from his job as a sports talk radio host for KSL Newsradio, a job he held for seven years.

Mitchell finds “Bye Bye Barry.”

There’s Sanders saying the Lions might have won some playoff games if they hadn’t let go of some players, including Mitchell’s predecessor, Erik Kramer. There’s head coach Wayne Fontes telling Sanders, “We had every piece but the quarterback.” There’s Eminem saying the Lions could have won more if Sanders wasn’t a one-man team. There’s Jeff Daniels joining the chorus.

Mitchell isn’t attacked as much as dismissed.

He seethes, gets off the couch, makes his way to his iMac, logs on to Facebook and begins to type. As soon as he finishes, he thinks he should delete it.

Nah. He hits “Post.”

  Scott Mitchell:    I just watched “Bye Bye Barry” on Amazon Prime and It wasn’t a very pleasant experience. I was Barry Sanders teammate for five years. I had a front row seat to some of the most amazing plays in NFL history. He will never have an equal as a pure runner in the NFL. I could argue there were several backs more complete, but I won’t. Barry was great!!

The 6-foot-6 Mitchell couldn’t do much with his feet, but with a left arm like Dumbledore’s wand, he didn’t have to. The ball left his big hand at the highest point and glided over the field, a gull over the sea. And the spin — it should have been the subject of a physicist’s thesis.

Greg Landry, Lions quarterbacks coach in 1995-96: “He could throw the heck out of the football, so accurate.”

Lomas Brown, left tackle: “Scott threw one of the prettiest balls — one of the tightest balls — I’ve ever seen. He could spin that thing, he really could.”

Herman Moore, wide receiver: “He threw probably the best ball that ever was thrown to me, just perfect passes. His was the easiest pass for me to catch.”

Marc Trestman, quarterbacks coach in 1997: “The ball always came out of his hand spinning, almost without effort. There was nothing he couldn’t do in the pocket.”

In three years at Utah, Mitchell set 10 NCAA records and became the 11th leading passer of all time. Miami chose him in the fourth round of the 1990 draft, and he was embraced and empowered by the great Don Shula, who handed Mitchell a playbook on his first day and told him he would be calling his own plays in practice. Mitchell learned how to be a pro by backing up Dan Marino, passer of passers.

Mitchell loved being a Dolphin and bonded easily with many of his teammates. The South Florida lifestyle suited him. But it was a dead-end job, and after two seasons without attempting a pass in a game, Mitchell volunteered to play for the Orlando Thunder of the World League. He threw for the second-most yards in the league and led the Thunder to an 8-2 record.

That year, he also joined Freeman McNeil, Marcus Allen and nine other players in an antitrust suit against the NFL that resulted in unrestricted free agency for the first time in the league’s history.

Then, in Week 6 of the 1993 season, Marino tore his Achilles and Mitchell had his showcase. He was named NFL offensive player of the week after his first game as a starter. Then he was named offensive player of the month.

In the first year of free agency, Reggie White was the grand prize. In 1994, it would be Mitchell. The Dolphins wanted to make him the highest-paid backup in the league with an unheard-of-at-the-time $1.5 million-per-year offer, but richer overtures followed.

Scott Mitchell shone in relief of Dan Marino in 1993, setting up a robust market in free agency the following offseason. (Doug Collier / Getty Images)

The charming Fontes came to Mitchell’s home and showed him the cigar he would light if Mitchell signed with Detroit. The Vikings handed him an 11-page booklet explaining why he was the only quarterback they wanted. Saints coach Jim Mora gave him a 90-minute sales pitch. Rams coach Chuck Knox pledged that, with Mitchell as his QB, no one would call him “Ground Chuck” anymore.

Mitchell had misgivings about how Fontes had used — or misused — quarterbacks in the past but decided to sign a three-year, $11 million deal with Detroit that included a $5 million signing bonus, the second largest in NFL history at the time and $500,000 more than White received from the Packers the year before. Lions GM Chuck Schmidt flew to South Florida to hand Mitchell the check.

“It was a blue check. More zeros than I had ever seen, ever,” Mitchell says. “And I was nervous, like, we need to get this in the bank.”

After making the deposit, he and Dolphins center Jeff Dellenbach celebrated at Burt and Jack’s, Burt Reynolds’ waterfront Fort Lauderdale restaurant. They ordered the two largest lobsters in the house — six-pounders — and a pair of filets so massive they needed to be butterflied to cook evenly.

The celebration ended when Mitchell arrived in Detroit.

  Scott Mitchell:    I am so tired of hearing that I was the reason Barry Sanders never won the Super Bowl. I’m so tired of hearing that I wasn’t a good QB. My only response is F### you all! That includes Eminem and Jeff Daniels.

The Lions made the NFC Championship Game two years prior and were loaded with former or future Pro Bowlers. All they needed, the narrative went, was a quarterback.

Mitchell probably was resented in his own locker room because of that blue check. And because he wasn’t Kramer, a well-liked part-time starter over three seasons. Brown believes Lions management failed to properly integrate Mitchell into a veteran team that was “still upset with them letting Erik Kramer go.”

When he got to Detroit, Mitchell sensed something was off, but he wasn’t sure what. “I just felt like I was interrupting a party,” he says. “Of all the places I played, Detroit was the one where I felt the most disconnected from my teammates.”

Moore was the exception. The quarterback and receiver recognized that they needed one another and bonded through shared commitment. They eventually could tell what the other was thinking without words or gestures. Moore says it is no coincidence that Mitchell was his quarterback all three years he was voted first-team All-Pro.

But Mitchell didn’t concern himself enough with chemistry, relationships, even reading the room. He would host a yearly dinner for the offense — buying prime steaks, fresh stone crabs from Florida and cheesecake from Chicago — but his focus, almost his sole focus, was being the best passer he could be. Naivete led him to believe he could succeed in any situation if he just applied himself more. It resulted, Mitchell believes, in being perceived as aloof and unapproachable.

“Scott was Scott,” Brown says. “Mostly to himself. Kind of quiet.”

In his first eight starts, Mitchell threw 11 interceptions and completed 48 percent of his throws. He was booed in his first game at the Pontiac Silverdome — and every subsequent game. He was struggling against the Packers in Week 9 when he suffered a broken right hand and was lost for the season.

In a 2012 radio interview, Brown said he purposely missed a block on the play that knocked Mitchell out for the season. Brown’s recollection of the play was faulty — he handled his assignment well while Sanders failed to pick up a blitzing safety — but he acknowledges his disgust with Michell’s play and regrets his ill intent.

“I was pissed off during the game,” he says. “I mean, I was mad.”

Mitchell wasn’t aware of Brown’s feelings during their playing days, but the lineman’s admission hurt him. “I’d never do that to another person, let alone a teammate,” Mitchell says. “I felt I got thrown under the bus for no reason. I don’t see Lomas. I don’t talk to Lomas. I don’t want to either.”

After the season, teammates presented him with a trophy featuring a turkey on top — the “Wanker of the Year” award given annually to the biggest complainer.

“I didn’t know if it was a joke, or if they were saying I was kind of a dick,” he says. “It could have been either one.”

  Scott Mitchell:    I can’t even tell you what a disappointment it is to hear my own coach, Wayne Fontes, who went out in free agency and actively pursued me to the point of begging me to come to Detroit, say that he wanted Joe Montana and Warren Moon, and that the only thing missing from the team winning the Super Bowl was a quarterback. A little support from the coach may have gone a long way. Wayne never had my back!

The 1995 season began with the Lions losing three games they easily could have won. Fontes called some of his team leaders to his office. One of them — Mitchell thinks it was safety Bennie Blades — said, “You brought this quarterback here to throw the ball. Let him throw it.”

Tom Moore, who had been promoted to offensive coordinator in the offseason, met with Mitchell. Detroit’s offense was reimagined using the same take-what-the-defense-gives-you, audible-based system Moore and Peyton Manning later used to set records and win a Super Bowl in Indianapolis.

“We changed our strategy,” Mitchell says. “We stopped forcing Barry Sanders on people.”



45 years on NFL sidelines with the league’s most underrated offensive mind

In Mitchell’s first 15 games with the Lions, he averaged 23 pass attempts. After the meeting with Moore, he averaged 37 attempts per game. Detroit won 10 of 13 and led the league in yards. Mitchell was the NFL’s second-leading passer behind MVP Brett Favre.

“That year we put up statistically was because of Scott and his ability,” Brown says.

But that was the regular season. In a 58-37 wild-card-round loss to the Eagles, Mitchell was intercepted four times and Sanders rushed for 40 yards.

With Mitchell flinging it at a similar rate the next season, the Lions started 4-3. Then Fontes pulled him in the middle of a series during a three-interception game against the Giants. The next night, Mitchell showed up at the team Halloween party dressed as his coach: a pillow under his shirt, a cigar — and Mickey Mouse ears.

He was warming up for a practice later that week when he pulled a muscle off his ribs. He was so determined to play that at 5:30 a.m. the next day, he drove 45 minutes to Henry Ford Hospital, where they stuck a four-inch needle into his ribs and kept it there for 12 minutes to deaden the pain. He passed out the first time, then went back every subsequent morning for another.

It helped his pain but not his passing. “I just couldn’t throw,” Mitchell says. “It was the damndest thing.”

Mitchell started six more games, all losses, performing poorly. Tired of being told he sucked, he stopped going to grocery stores, restaurants and movies.

After the season, Lions owner William Clay Ford asked Mitchell what he should do about Fontes, who had a 66-67 record in nine years. Mitchell never felt like he was one of Fontes’ guys, but he says he told Ford there was nothing wrong with the team and asked him not to change the offense. “We just need more time,” the quarterback told the owner. “Just give us more time.”

Ford fired Fontes and hired Bobby Ross, a former Army lieutenant who coached like one. In Mitchell’s first meeting with his new coach, Mitchell said he thought the offense had much more potential than it had shown. Ross told him Herman Moore told him the same thing and asked if they were in cahoots. “And then he goes, ‘All you guys are interested in is your stats,’” Mitchell says.

According to Mitchell, Ross barred him from meeting with new offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom and told him not to speak with Ford or his son, William Clay Ford Jr., with whom Mitchell had become friendly. The Lions had already decided to double down on Mitchell by giving him a four-year, $21 million contract extension with an $8 million signing bonus, but Ross hadn’t had a say in the decision.

Sanders refused to report until the Lions adjusted his contract so his average per year exceeded Mitchell’s. Mitchell long suspected Sanders didn’t think much of him, and the relationship had difficulties.

“It was challenging to play with him,” Mitchell says. “A lot of those other running backs of the day weren’t going to get you behind the chains very often, and we were behind the chains a lot with Barry. If you didn’t run Barry the right way, it was hard, and it put everyone else in a bind.”

In most offenses, Mitchell would have taken former Bengals teammate Corey Dillon over Sanders. Or Emmitt Smith. Or Marshall Faulk. Or Terrell Davis.

“When we used (Sanders) the way we did in Tom Moore’s offense, I’d take him over anyone,” Mitchell says. “But what made it great was our willingness to throw the football.”

With Croom replacing Tom Moore, the offensive philosophy changed, de-emphasizing the passing game.

“Sylvester got so stuck on Barry and running the ball that a lot of guys were forgotten,” Mitchell says. “Barry rushed for 2,000 yards and it was all wonderful, but we could have been so much more. … It was an amazing opportunity lost.”

In Ross’ first year, Trestman served as a sounding board for Mitchell and a bridge to Ross. But he left after the 1997 season and was replaced by Jim Zorn, who clashed with Mitchell about almost everything. The Lions made the playoffs but lost 20-10 to the Bucs. Mitchell had 78 passing yards in the third quarter when he left the game on a stretcher with a concussion. Sanders rushed for 65 yards.

After opening the 1998 season with two losses, Mitchell was benched in favor of rookie Charlie Batch. His Lions career was over. Detroit traded Mitchell to Baltimore in the offseason for third- and fifth-round picks.

The Lions’ loss to the Bucs in the playoffs following the 1997 season was the beginning of the end for Scott Mitchell in Detroit. (Getty Images)

“Us failing wasn’t about Scott as much as it was failing to put the right coaching, schemes and systems around him,” Brown says.

“Scott had an offensive line. He had a running back. He had receivers,” Herman Moore says. “Some of the coaches that came in were so rigid that it was their way or the highway. In that regard, we were all set up to fail because there was no collaboration.”

Mitchell was the opening-day starter for the Ravens the next season but was benched after the second game. In 2000, he signed with the Bengals as a backup and started five games late in the year. He returned to Cincinnati the following season but never started again.

During a preseason game against the Lions, he planned to fire a pass at the sideline to bean Ross. He didn’t do it, but after retiring, he called his former coach to apologize for his rancor nonetheless. Mitchell says Ross appreciated the call and told him, “For what it’s worth, I never should have benched you.”

For the next two years, Mitchell practiced every day as if he would be starting an NFL game soon. He called Cowboys coach Bill Parcells repeatedly to ask for a chance. Parcells never called back. The Raiders finally asked him to come to Oakland for a workout. When he arrived, the tryout was delayed. Then it was canceled.

Mitchell went home and set up for another practice. Then it hit him. It was over.

“I fell to the ground,” he says. “And sobbed uncontrollably.”

  Scott Mitchell:   Bottom line. Barry had everything in Detroit. Everyone loved him. Everything was built for Barry to succeed. In his 10-year career, he won one playoff game and everyone else was the problem? How many yards did Barry have in the playoffs in 94, 95, and 97? I’ll give you a hint: Not very many. We are all to blame for not winning a SB in Detroit, even Barry Sanders.

One of Mitchell’s earliest childhood memories was when he was about 2, staying with his grandmother and waking to the smell of Kentucky Fried Chicken, then sitting up in his crib and yelling, “I want Tucky Chicken!” It was the start of a lifetime of unhealthy eating habits.

In his book “Alive Again,” Mitchell acknowledges struggling with his weight during his playing career. He often gained 20 pounds or so in the offseason, but he always dropped the weight and says he never was fined for failing to make his prescribed playing weight of 235 pounds.

By 2014, Mitchell was 13 years and 125 pounds beyond his NFL days. Weighing 366 pounds, he became a contestant on the TV show “The Biggest Loser,” which had him doing eight hours of cardio a day and preparing his own healthy meals. It was hard, so hard he decided to quit in the middle of the show.

“At that point, I felt like I failed,” he says, wiping a tear.

It wasn’t about failing on “The Biggest Loser” as much as it was about failing in football, in life. He took a hike in the Santa Monica mountains and decided to rest. Alone, he sat on a dusty dirt trail. That’s when he says he heard a deep, booming voice: “If you quit now, you’ll regret this for the rest of your life.”

He woke the next morning and saw his football career in a different light. He realized adversity had shaped his character. Through his disappointments and failures, he became more forgiving — even of himself. He developed patience and perspective and discovered he was more resilient than he knew.

Mitchell didn’t quit the show. He lost 124 pounds. And he stopped feeling like a failure.

Since then, it’s been a struggle. Mitchell weighed as much as 418 last year but lost 35 pounds after starting a weight-loss drug and embarking on a workout program with his wife, Anne, whom he married last month. But in January his kidneys shut down, and after five days in the hospital, he developed blood clots in his lungs. He has since regained his health and expects to resume his weight-loss program soon.

Scott Mitchell, at his Utah home, weighed as much as 418 pounds last year but lost 35 pounds after embarking on a weight-loss program. (Dan Pompei / The Athletic)

He doesn’t talk much to Sanders, who was unavailable for this story. Hardly anyone does. Or ever did.

“He never said a word, ever,” Mitchell says. “After games, he’d just duck out the back door. And it was OK. But I was not close to Barry at all. I don’t know who he is.”

Mitchell has time for fly fishing, 18 holes and playing guitar, or trying to. And for hosting weekly cooking classes for any of his five adult children — you should taste his almond/coconut encrusted sweet chili salmon with cauliflower mashed potatoes and asparagus with lemon, garlic and feta cheese.

He has time to look for a new platform while remaining the color commentator for Utah football on ESPN 700. He has time to follow his old team. Mitchell hasn’t been to a Lions game in five years, but he pulls for Dan Campbell, Jared Goff and Lions fans.

He has time to start a non-profit to provide disadvantaged youth with STEM education and mentoring from athletes. He has time to drive a visitor to the airport.

In years gone by, passengers would remark about his driving — it was a problem to solve, a game of “Tetris.” How can I get to the destination as quickly and efficiently as possible? He gripped the wheel tightly, looked way down the road and didn’t say much, all focus on the challenge.

He’s not driving that way now.

He’s chatting, appreciating the sights. Here’s Point of the Mountain, which separates Salt Lake City and Provo and is the dividing line between Utah fans and Brigham Young supporters. It’s about 230 miles that way to Moab. Four hours this way is the Grand Canyon.

Mitchell is seeing things he never could have 20 years ago.

He believes the Lions could have won a Super Bowl if he had been properly supported. He wants the world to know it. That was the reason for that Facebook post. He needed to get it out and put it in his rearview mirror.

What would he have done differently if he could go back in time?

He looks out the window. The sun shines. In the distance, the Wasatch mountains wear white caps.

“If I knew what I know now,” Mitchell says, pausing, “I would have stayed in Miami.”

(Top illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Vincent Laforet / Allsport via Getty; Dan Pompei / The Athletic)