Mitchell hits comfort zone

Clawing ex-Lion finds fit in new system, cast

August 31, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

The challenge for Scott Mitchell has been formidable.

Restart your career after a disastrous chapter with the Detroit Lions, who benched and embarrassed you last year by demoting you to No. 3 quarterback. Come to Baltimore with a new coach and a new offensive system. Learn to play with a new set of receivers, some of whom you will not meet until your first training camp. Shake off the rust quickly, then prove you can be the man again.

With one preseason game left in his preparation for a season he hopes brings new life to his 10-year career, Mitchell appears to be on the right course.

He has weathered the dead-arm phase of training camp, and his passes have picked up more zip. He has shaken off a rough outing against the Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason opener, which marked the first time Mitchell had played a game in nearly a year. He has engineered long drives and crisp, two-minute drills. He has grown more accustomed to his running backs and receivers, most of whom have yet to establish successful careers.

"It seems like every week I feel more comfortable with what we're doing," Mitchell said. "You start to feel like you're seeing things a whole lot better. I've been put into tough situations.

"I didn't even know a lot of the guys I was going to be throwing to before training camp. I didn't know who my roommate was [wide receiver Justin Armour] when I got introduced to him. I thought he was the backup punter."

Make no mistake. Despite the impressive preseason statistics by backup Tony Banks (70.3 percent completion rate, two touchdowns), Mitchell is the Ravens' starting quarterback. Coach Brian Billick sang Mitchell's praises throughout training camp. Mitchell has responded with strong showings in recent weeks.

Against the Atlanta Falcons 10 days ago, he clicked with wide receiver Jermaine Lewis during an 83-yard drive that resulted in a field goal, hitting Lewis four times for big gains. In Saturday night's 28-24 victory over the Carolina Panthers, Mitchell's two-minute offense produced a field goal at the end of the first half. He also finished a perfectly executed flea flicker by hitting Qadry Ismail for a 49-yard touchdown.

Mitchell also has improved his handling of the football. After losing a snap from center and fumbling after getting hit in the pocket against the Falcons, he kept a tight grip against the Panthers.

Through three games, Mitchell has completed 30 of 54 passes (55.6 percent) for 306 yards and a touchdown. He has yet to throw an interception. And at 6 feet 6, 245 pounds, he predictably has proved tough to bring down.

"The thing I was most pleased with [on Saturday] was we were backed up inside our 10-yard line twice and we did not have to kick out of our own end zone," Billick said. "We had a good completion rate, a good third-down conversion rate and we were explosive.

"The way Scott handled the two-minute drill and the way he handled the whole team in the first half, we've come a long way in a month. Clearly, with each outing, he's getting more comfortable. It's getting closer to where he and the receivers understand each other's nuances."

Lewis can vouch for that. He has worked with Mitchell since the team's first minicamp in April. Gradually, the two have come to know each other's moves and tendencies -- such as how Lewis will break off a pattern, where he will look to exploit a certain coverage, where he likes to catch the ball.

"We're still building on that now. I think we're going to be learning from each other all season," Lewis said. "It's a continuous process."

"The only way to grow and mesh is to play games together," Mitchell said. "I'm starting to feel that way with Jermaine and Qadry."

Mitchell is eager to sense some continuity on the field again. He recalled how, after being drafted in the fourth round by the Miami Dolphins in 1990, he worked in the same offensive system for four seasons. After signing with Detroit in 1994 as the Lions' starter, he spent the next five seasons largely with the same group of receivers, led by Herman Moore.

His best season was in 1995, when he threw for 4,338 yards and 32 touchdowns, both career highs. Over his next two years, a combined 36 touchdowns were smeared by a combined 31 interceptions. Then came 1998, when Mitchell was benched after throwing one touchdown and three interceptions in the first two games.

The word out of Detroit last year was that Mitchell was not willing to work hard enough anymore, that he had become uncoachable.

Mitchell responded with a wave of his hand.

"I haven't heard one thing, good or bad, about that," he said. "All I can say is I'm real happy about where I am. Brian is real demanding about what he wants done, and there's no question about the way he wants things to work. I've got a lot of experience I can draw from. I know that's a bonus.

"I just look at that [Detroit] as a chapter in my life I've turned the page on. I'm moving forward."

Pub Date: 8/31/99

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