How we remember him: After three years as a back up for Miami’s Dan Marino, in 1994 the 6-6 southpaw quarterback signed as a free agent with the Lions for three years and $11 million dollars. Although his first Lion season in 1994 ended prematurely due to a broken wrist, with a wide open offense that included Barry Sanders in the backfield and a potent trio of receivers in Herman Moore, Robert Perriman, and Johnny Morton, Mitchell set still standing Lion records for touchdown passes (32), passing yards (4,338) completions (346) and attempts (583) in 1995. But with two subpar performances in the ’95 and ’97 playoffs, he began to fall out of favor with fans. In 1998, second year Lion head coach Bobby Ross turned to rookie Charlie Batch when he benched Mitchell and relegated him to third string after the Bengals picked off a Mitchell pass and returned it 53 yards for a touchdown to give Cincinnati an overtime win in game 2. Mitchell never took another snap for the Lions.
After the Lions: He was traded after the ’98 season to Baltimore for a third (1999) and fifth round (2000) draft picks where he served as a backup in ’99. He finished his career as a backup for two seasons in Cincinnati. Three years ago he was a residential developer in Florida but now he is the head football coach at his alma mater in Springville Utah where his team last month lost the state championship game.
On what happened after his record setting 2005 season: In ’96 we started out the same way but I got injured and I kind of suffered through that whole year. Then Wayne (Fontes) got fired and our offense really went into remission. Perriman left and we went into that 4 yards and a cloud of dust mode with Bobby Ross. Bobby’s an excellent coach but his style did not match our personnel and he went out and got the personnel that matched his style. We had Lomas Brown, Dave Lutz, Kevin Glover and Zefross Moss, the only guy who could block Reggie White. What really hurt us was not keeping that good group together. You look at teams like the Patriots and Steelers and they do everything possible to try and keep the nucleus of their team intact.
On the Lion’s losing seasons: “It seems the Lions have just had years of unfortunate luck. I know the Ford family wants to win. They’re not afraid to do things and put money into it. It’s almost like you’re trying too hard. Sometimes you pull the trigger too soon or wait too long when you should have pulled the trigger. After awhile it’s probably like “I don’t know what to do.”
On being benched by Bobby Ross: “It was a weird thing. I called Bobby after I left Detroit to clear the air because I thought I’m not going to live my life all bitter. He said, “I know this probably won’t mean anything to you now but I never should have benched you when I did.” Jim Zorn was my quarterbacks coach under Bobby (in ’98) and we kind of hit it off like oil and water.”
On Barry Sanders: “Barry was such a unique player because there’s not a whole lot of players who when they touched the ball there’s always a threat of scoring a touchdown. He was so elusive to defensive players but he was also elusive to me. When I handed the ball off he was never in the same place and sometimes he was real wide or sometimes tight, I just ran back as fast as I could. You just never knew because he was already reading the defense. I said to Bobby why not throw on first down, because we had great receivers and they were always singled up because there’s no way the defense is not going to bring the extra safety down to try and stop Barry. At the time it just got construed that you just want to throw the ball all the time.”
On being a quarterback in Detroit: “Detroit is a tough place to be a quarterback. Within the organization I don’t think they really have an understanding on how to develop and nourish a quarterback. Maybe that will change with Mike Marks because he understands the guy under center and understands putting him in a position to be successful. I hope it does change. If I was a coach I would try to create an environment within my organization to give my quarterback every opportunity to succeed like keeping the continuity and surrounding him with the right kind of personnel, coaches, and philosophy. That’s how you saw quarterbacks flourish in Miami, San Francisco, Denver, and Green Bay.”
On his time with the Lions: “I am extremely proud with my time in Detroit and what we accomplished because it was so difficult to do. It was a lot harder than it had to be. I would have loved to have stayed there longer because I had created a great chemistry with some players there like Herman (Moore) and Johnny (Morton). That was hard for me for awhile. I took a lot of heat and abuse but I was committed to see the whole thing through. I lived there all year and in the off season came in every morning at 6:30 and worked out. I would probably do things a little different like hire a publicist. There are guys in their career who have done a good job selling themselves but that’s water under the bridge. I tried to retire as a Detroit Lion but they wouldn’t do it.”