Skip to main content
Original Issue

4 Detroit Lions No matter how great Barry Sanders is, this team will go nowhere fast unless quarterback Scott Mitchell can finally get his game in gear

Moments before an afternoon practice early in training camp,
Lions quarterback Scott Mitchell stretched in the back of an end
zone while talking with Jim Zorn, the team's first-year
quarterbacks coach and former Seahawks signal-caller. For almost
10 minutes the two lefties talked about a coverage read Mitchell
had made during an earlier practice. Then, just before the horn
blew to signify the start of drills, Zorn pulled a packet of
aspirin out of his pocket and offered it to Mitchell. On the job
for less than a week, Zorn was already earning his keep healing
Mitchell's--and the Lions'--biggest headaches.

Most of Detroit's pain since Mitchell arrived in the Motor City
as a free agent four years ago has stemmed from an inconsistent
passing attack that has been slowed by the quarterback's
penchant for performing like an Edsel in big games. Mitchell is
27-28 as a starter for the Lions, and in his two playoff
appearances, a 58-37 shellacking by the Eagles in 1995 and last
season's 20-10 loss to the Buccaneers, he completed just 23 of
54 passes for 233 yards, with one touchdown and five

Now, with Barry Sanders, the 1997 league MVP, and Pro Bowl
wideout Herman Moore in the prime of their careers, Mitchell's
window of opportunity in Detroit is in danger of being slammed
shut. Management hasn't exactly been subtle about relaying that
message. In April the Lions traded up to select Eastern Michigan
quarterback Charlie Batch in the second round of the draft. In
hopes of further prodding the occasionally indifferent Mitchell,
who threw 19 touchdown passes and 14 interceptions last season,
second-year coach Bobby Ross hired the fiery Zorn.

"When I first got here," says Mitchell, "I wanted to be the guy
who took the Lions to the Super Bowl. But I put too much pressure
on myself to please everyone, and that got me away from being a
smart player. So people have not seen me play my best football

Bringing that out will be the job of Zorn, best remembered as
the scrambler who quarterbacked the Seahawks from 1976 to 1984.
Despite some gray around his temples, the 45-year-old Zorn still
looks as if he could shake loose from a tackle or two. After
leaving Seattle, Zorn played two more years in the NFL and one
in the CFL. He then worked in the collegiate coaching ranks for
eight years before taking a part-time assistant's job with the
Seahawks in 1997.

In Detroit, Zorn will concentrate on two points: keeping
Mitchell mentally focused and correcting the quarterback's
careless footwork. The latter should provide Mitchell with a
more balanced throwing motion and make him more effective
tossing intermediate-length passes on the move. "I want to get
the most out of Scott that we can," says Zorn. "What we want is
to get him to play up to his expectations. And ours."

Although their personalities are polar opposites, professor and
pupil have taken to each other under a mutual sense of urgency.
Zorn is getting a first full-time opportunity to coach in the
NFL. Mitchell signed a four-year, $21 million deal in February
1997; nevertheless, he may be looking at a last chance. For the
duo to click, they'll need to improve on things that will play
off Sanders, especially play-action fakes, and things that will
alleviate the pressure on Sanders, most notably Mitchell's
third-down efficiency. While his quarterback rating was a
respectable 79.6, that number plummeted to 57.6 on third down.
"Barry Sanders can run for 1,500 yards in his sleep," says
Mitchell. "Becoming effective in other areas is what will make
this team more potent. That's why the quarterback is critical to
our success."

Not everything, of course, has been Mitchell's fault. The Lions'
patchwork line gave up 41 sacks last year, and the defense
allowed only 13 fewer yards rushing per game (115) than Sanders
averaged. Both units are only slightly improved. Furthermore,
since being signed away from the Dolphins as a free agent in
1994, Mitchell has had three offensive coordinators, something
he refers to as "coaching chaos." In fact, this is the first
season he hasn't had to learn a new scheme. That has freed him
up to work on his strength and flexibility with a specialist in
California. As a result, Mitchell came into camp in probably the
best shape of his nine-year NFL career.

Good thing. Once that practice horn blew, the chitchatting was
over. After a full workout Zorn had his quarterbacks running
hills. Ross watched from across the practice field, and the
scene inspired him to predict that Mitchell was on the verge of
something special. Then Ross added, "I only hope that it's very
soon." --D.F.

COLOR PHOTO: JAY CRIHFIELD/SPURLOCK PHOTO Do or die? Onrushing linemen aren't the only ones putting heat on Mitchell; the Detroit brass has hinted the time to deliver is now. [Scott Mitchell in game]

B/W PHOTO: DUANE BURLESON Elliss [Luther Elliss]


Sept. 6 at Green Bay
20 at Minnesota
28 TAMPA BAY (Mon.)
Oct. 4 at Chicago
15 GREEN BAY (Thurs.)
8 at Philadelphia
22 at Tampa Bay
26 PITTSBURGH (Thurs.)
Dec. 6 at Jacksonville
14 at San Francisco (Mon.)
27 at Baltimore

Fast Facts

1997 Record 9-7 (3rd in NFC Central) NFL rank
(rush/pass/total): offense 2/12/2; defense 18/13/14

1998 Schedule strength NFL rank: 5 (tie) Opponents' 1997
winning percentage: .539 Games against playoff teams: 9

Under the Gun

The Lions had the NFL's most efficient two-minute offense last
year, averaging 2.23 points per drive on their 39 possessions
that began in the final two minutes of a half. The top five teams
in this category had a pair of things in common: Each had the
same starting quarterback for all 16 regular-season games, and
each made the playoffs.

Quarterback Poss. TDs FGs Pts. Avg.
Lions Scott Mitchell 39 8 10 87 2.23
Packers Brett Favre 40 8 5 71 1.78
Steelers Kordell Stewart 39 8 3 66 1.69
Dolphins Dan Marino 39 7 6 65 1.67
Patriots Drew Bledsoe 30 6 3 50 1.67

Inside Slant

Rookies looking to win their coach's heart need look no further
than fourth-year defensive tackle Luther Elliss. Not only did
Elliss finish second on the team with 8 1/2 sacks in '97, but
the 291-pounder also has been spotted running sprints with Barry
Sanders after training camp practices.... For wide receiver
Herman Moore, looking at rookie wideout Germane Crowell is like
gazing into a mirror. The two are similar in build (Moore is
6'3", 210 pounds; Crowell 6'3", 213), they both attended
Virginia, and Crowell ranks only behind Moore in the school's
record book for single-season receptions and receiving yards.
"Naturally I kind of patterned myself after him," Crowell says.
"Everyone knows Herman Moore."... In the first quarter last
season, the Lions were outscored 100-35. From the second period
on, they enjoyed a 344-206 edge.

Projected Lineup With 1997 statistics

Coach: Bobby Ross
Second season with Lions (56-40 in NFL)

Offensive Backs PVR*

QB Scott Mitchell 33[PVR*] 509 att. 293 comp. 57.6%
3,484 yds. 19 TDs 14 int. 79.6 rtg.

RB Barry Sanders 1[PVR*] 335 att. 2,053 yds. 6.1
avg. 33 rec. 305 yds. 9.2 avg. 14 TDs

FB Tommy Vardell 274[PVR*] 32 att. 122 yds. 3.8 avg.
16 rec. 218 yds. 13.6 avg. 6 TDs

RB Ron Rivers 306[PVR*] 29 att. 166 yds. 5.7 avg.
0 rec. 0 yds. N.A. 1 TD

Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen

WR Herman Moore 14[PVR*] 104 rec. 1,293 yds. 8 TDs
WR Johnnie Morton 87[PVR*] 80 rec. 1,057 yds. 6 TDs
WR Germane Crowell (R)[N] 215[PVR*] 53 rec. 969 yds. 9 TDs
TE David Sloan 201[PVR*] 29 rec. 264 yds. 0 TDs
K Jason Hanson 76[PVR*] 39/40 XPs 26/29 FGs 117 pts.
PR Terry Fair (R)[N] 402[PVR*] 19 ret. 14.3 avg. 0 TDs
KR Terry Battle** 355[PVR*] 17 ret. 31.1 avg. 2 TDs
LT Ray Roberts 6'6" 308 lbs. 14 games 14 starts
LG Mike Compton 6'6" 297 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Jim Pyne[N] 6'2" 297 lbs. 15 games 14 starts
RG Jeff Hartings 6'3" 283 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Larry Tharpe 6'4" 300 lbs. 16 games 15 starts


LE Robert Porcher 72 tackles 12 1/2 sacks
LT Luther Elliss 63 tackles 8 1/2 sacks
RT Dan Owens[N] 51 tackles 8 sacks
RE Kerwin Waldroup 33 tackles 1 sack
OLB Rob Fredrickson[N] 75 tackles 2 sacks
MLB Stephen Boyd 138 tackles 1 int.
OLB Allen Aldridge[N] 57 tackles 0 sacks
CB Bryant Westbrook 45 tackles 2 int.
SS Ron Rice 49 tackles 1 int.
FS Mark Carrier 75 tackles 5 int.
CB Kevin Abrams 28 tackles 1 int.
P John Jett 84 punts 42.6 avg.

[N]New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 88)

**1996 college statistics