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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
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 interceptions.
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 yet."
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."
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."
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