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The Bonus Baby
Peter King
March 14, 1994
Big, young, talented and inexperienced, Scott Mitchell, the former backup quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, was in prime position to profit—and how!—from the NFL's new world of free agency
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March 14, 1994

The Bonus Baby

Big, young, talented and inexperienced, Scott Mitchell, the former backup quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, was in prime position to profit—and how!—from the NFL's new world of free agency

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Scott Mitchell is perfect for the new world of the NFL, the three-week-old era of free agency with a salary cap. For most of his four seasons in the league, people walked past him or looked through him as if he weren't there, because being a backup quarterback for the Miami Dolphins isn't the kind of job that gets a guy noticed, not with Dan Marino in front of him. But then things began to happen for Mitchell. Big things. He is a tall quarterback, 6'6", with immense promise, a likable nature, just enough confidence and a growing résumé. And suddenly, last month, some important people wanted him.

Wayne Fontes, the 1991 NFL Coach of the Year, wanted him so badly for the Detroit Lions that he flew to Mitchell's home in Fort Lauderdale and said, "You're our guy." The Rams flew Mitchell to Los Angeles, where they sent limos to fetch him and coach Chuck Knox to court him, and where assistant head coach Joe Vitt told him, "You could own this town." The Vikings handed Mitchell an 11-page printed and bound booklet trumpeting WHY THE MINNESOTA VIKINGS WANT SCOTT MITCHELL! New Orleans coach Jim Mora spent 90 minutes telling Mitchell he could be the cornerstone of the Saints' future.

Some folks thought it lunatic for coaches to fawn over Mitchell. "I can't believe all these teams lining up to overpay a guy who's started seven games," one AFC scout said. Mitchell understood. He is inexperienced. He isn't as mobile as coaches would like. He did have a meteoric October, his first month ever as an NFL regular, earning the AFC's Offensive Player of the Month award for leading the Dolphins after Marino went down with a torn Achilles tendon; and in his seven starts he threw for 1,773 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while completing 57.1% of his passes. But Mitchell's late-season play was marred by a dislocated left shoulder, which eventually healed but gave some suitors doubts. Whoever signed him would be getting a big-potential guy but would also be getting nervous. Whoever signed him would spend the spring and summer wondering, Is this guy the real thing?

Still, the fawning didn't seem that lunatic to Mitchell. Last Thursday, as he finished a two-week, four-franchise tour that would decide his future—flying first-class, sleeping in suites, never lifting his wallet from his pocket—he understood perfectly why he was wanted. "Look at the market out there," he said. "These teams can either get an older guy with a long track record, or they can get a 26-year-old quarterback, with the size everyone wants in a quarterback, who just played well for the Dolphins in a pressure situation. Why wouldn't anyone want a guy like that?"

And what did he want? "I want to go to a team where I can start and compete for a Super Bowl," he said, "and I want a team to commit to me. That's my goal."

When the tour started in Detroit on Feb. 20, Mitchell was well prepared. His agent, Tony Agnone, had worked up a 47-page briefing for Scott and his wife, Kim, with questions to be posed to each franchise. Here's how Team Mitchell worked: Kim would go out into the community with a player's wife or a team secretary to explore the housing market and living conditions; Scott would meet with coaches; and Agnone would lock horns with the general manager or purse-strings holder. Their goals were simple—and substantial: find a city that the Mitchells liked, with a team that would hand Scott the starting job under a contract that would pay him about $3.5 million a year.

One more thing. Agnone wanted significant money up front. If a team gave Mitchell a $4 million signing bonus, to be paid out over three years, management wouldn't be inclined to dump him and his nonguaranteed contract if he had one bad season or was injured.

On Day One, while Mitchell was at the Silverdome, Chicago dropped a bomb on the Lions by signing the quarterback Fontes thought would be his fallback, Erik Kramer. Now Detroit, which had decided not to bring back Rodney Peete or Andre Ware, really needed Mitchell. He faced off with Fontes, who had hop-scotched dizzily from Kramer to Peete to Ware over the past three years. "What's your philosophy on quarterback changes?" Mitchell asked. "You've had a pretty quick hook in the past."

"I never found one I felt comfortable with," Fontes told him. "That's why we want you so bad."

How bad? Mitchell had his physical the next morning at a hospital 40 minutes from the Lions' offices; when he arrived for the 7 a.m. exam, Fontes was waiting. "Just wanted to let you know I drove 40 minutes out of my way to see you," Fontes said in his best recruiting voice. (Mitchell, by the way, passed the exam.)

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