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
March 14, 1994

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 rèsumè. 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.)

Then he was off to Minneapolis, where everything looked right. Good offensive weapons, young coaching staff, new and wise receivers' guru (Jerry Rhome), no long-term quarterback. Viking vice president Jeff Diamond asked Agnone if $10 million over three years would get the deal done; the figures were pleasing to Agnone and Mitchell. At the Vikes' training complex Mitchell passed free-agent offensive tackle Chris Hinton in a hallway. It was no coincidence; the Vikings wanted to show Mitchell they were intent on building a great front wall for him. Mitchell pulled Hinton aside and asked, "What are you going to do?"

"Go here, if they offer me the right money," Hinton said. Minnesota did, and that weekend Hinton signed.

On Friday, Agnone went home to Baltimore and the Mitchells went to Florida for the weekend. That evening Scott called Agnone. Kim's visit to the Minneapolis suburbs had gone well, and Scott loved the Viking coaches and offense. Scott said, "Tell Minnesota if they offer $10.5 million over three, a Metrodome luxury box and a down payment on a house, we're there."

Whoa, Agnone counseled. The Viking money will still be there in a week. Relax. Take your last two visits, to Los Angeles and New Orleans.

"A moment of temporary insanity," Mitchell said later. "I realized if I didn't take all the trips, I might regret it later."

In L.A., Knox told Agnone and Mitchell to forget about the Ground Chuck rep that had dogged Knox everywhere he'd worked, implying that he couldn't coach passers. "Look at the 3,000-yard passers I've had," Knox said over dinner at The Palm." Vince Ferragamo, Jim Zorn, Dave Krieg. We'll throw the ball."

The next night Team Mitchell dined with another Agnone client, veteran Raider running back Steve Smith. In mid-lobster, Mitchell asked Smith, a free agent last year who spurned Chicago to re-sign with L.A., "Where would you go if you were me?"

"What's important to you?" Smith asked.

"Starting, and winning, and a team totally committing to me," Mitchell said.

"How about money?" Smith said.

"It's a factor," Mitchell said.

"Well, take them one by one," Smith said. "Detroit, I don't know. Look how their coaching staff handled quarterbacks in the past. It was like a three-ring circus. I wouldn't like that if I were you. Minnesota is interesting, but I don't know if they have that deep threat you want in an offense. Qadry Ismail might be it. New Orleans...well, players say Jim Mora's too militaristic, too demanding. I don't know if I'd like it there. The Rams are interesting. They're young, they've got the great back in Jerome Bettis, they've got an aggressive defense. They're just waiting for someone to come in and take control of the offense. You could be really big out here. If I'm you, I pick the Rams."

On to New Orleans. While the plane was 35,000 feet over New Mexico, Agnone took the Airfone, got messages from his office—Detroit executive vice president Chuck Schmidt had called twice—and spoke with the Vikings' Diamond.

"Jeff, remember those numbers I wrote down last week? The numbers that added up to $11.5 million over three years?" Agnone said.

"Yeah, I remember," Diamond said.

"Well, that's about where I see this coming in," Agnone said.

"Tony, you know the kid wants to come here," Diamond said. "Let's make it work."

But Agnone began to worry. "If they really want him, I'll tell you what would show that," Agnone said. "A big signing bonus." Under the new NFL financial rules, if, for example, a team gives a player a three-year contract with a $3 million signing bonus in 1994, $1 million of the bonus counts against that team's cap in '94, the second million in '95 and the third in '96; if the player is cut after the '94 season, the remaining $2 million of the signing bonus would count against the cap in '95. Agnone figured a team that really wanted Mitchell might pay him $11 million over three years. But the "right" team would pay him nearly half of it in a signing bonus, making it less likely that he would be cut after a bad year or an injury.

The Saints looked good to Mitchell during his visit last Thursday—but they blew their offensive budget on Friday, choosing to sign former Atlanta Falcon wideout Michael Haynes to a four-year, $10 million offer sheet. The Saints then had less money to shell out for a quarterback. And the Rams, worried that they wouldn't be Mitchell's top pick, watched an impressive workout by the Falcons' Chris Miller Thursday afternoon and began negotiating with his agent.

Then Fontes stepped up again. Realizing the Lions had fallen behind the Vikings in the Mitchell stakes, he called the quarterback and asked him if he would meet Friday with Fontes and the Lion offensive architects, Dave Levy and Tom Moore. Come on down, Mitchell said. That afternoon, Bernie Kosar, a free-agent quarterback as well as a buddy of the Mitchells', called. He told Kim, "I canceled my visit to Detroit. They only want Scott. They'll die if they don't get him."

The Lions roared in, meeting Mitchell for lunch at a marina restaurant. Fontes cut through the appetizers and the small talk. "Scott, you're our guy," he said. "I'll do anything I can to get you signed."

"Coach, what I've been looking for all along is a real commitment," Mitchell said. "I want someone who shows me financially I'm their guy for the next three years with an up-front commitment."

Fontes, as impetuous a coach as there is in the NFL, pulled out a cigar. "I'm not lighting it yet," he said, with a Cheshire-cat grin, "but you will be a Detroit Lion."

At 10 a.m. Saturday, Agnone and partner Howard Schatzky, in their office north of Baltimore, started playing Lions against Vikings over the phone. By 2:30 in the afternoon, Detroit stood at three years, $10 million—including the kind of bonus, $3 million, that Mitchell wanted. Minnesota came way up on its bonus offer, from $900,000 to $2.4 million, in a three-year, $10.2 million package. Diamond said he was tapped out, and he'd previously told Agnone he wouldn't offer a huge bonus. So Agnone called Mitchell, told him he thought he could boost Detroit's bonus to maybe $5 million, but not Minnesota's, and asked Mitchell what he wanted to do.

"I want to take a walk," Mitchell said.

Scott, his college-sweetheart wife and their 3-year-old poodle, Bart, set off for a walk around their posh suburban block. This was it. No phones. No pleas. No $400 dinners. In one hour Scott would know exactly where his football future lay, and he knew that he and Kim could pick it. Minnesota, Detroit. Detroit, Minnesota. Barry Sanders, Cris Carter. Henry Thomas, Chris Spielman. Dennis Green, Wayne Fontes.

"I don't want to decide," Kim said. "You decide. I just want it to be over."

"No," he said. "This is both of us."

She said she would be happy to live in either place, though she preferred Minnesota. He said that while they really liked Minnesota, they didn't dislike Detroit, and they couldn't think of a reason not to live there. The bonus thing nagged at both of them. Scott kept thinking, If the Lions offer me a huge bonus, they'll stick with me. If the Vikings don't, they might not. Scott stopped. "I'm gonna call Tony and tell him to try Detroit," he said.

"Good," Kim said.

Before Agnone called Detroit he took a deep breath. He is 41. He has about 40 mostly middle-class NFL clients. The biggest deal he'd ever done was half this size. "This is the rush you get in this business," he said, his voice on edge. He was about to ask the Lions for $11 million over three years, with a bonus of $5 million—the second largest in NFL history—and salaries of $1.5 million, $2 million and $2.5 million—for a 26-year-old former fourth-round pick with seven career starts.

Schmidt and Fontes had been waiting by the phone. Agnone detailed the deal. "If you do this," he said, "Scott's a Lion."

The Lions were quiet for a while.

"Has Wayne got his cigar out yet?" Agnone said. "Is he lighting it?"

"Yeah," Schmidt said. "And he's going to burn me with it."

The Lions asked for some time to think. When they called back, Schmidt asked for "cap relief": If Mitchell would accept a salary structure of $1.4 million, $2 million and $2.6 million, Detroit would then have $100,000 more for their cap in 1994. "No problem," Agnone said. At 4:20 p.m., the deal was done.

The Vikings didn't go down without a fight. Diamond urged Mitchell to talk with him on Sunday. Mitchell thanked him and said he would talk but wouldn't change his mind. He was a Lion.

Schmidt flew to Fort Lauderdale on Saturday night, contract in hand. Mitchell signed just after noon on Sunday. "I'm going to a good football team, a team that really wants me and proved it," Mitchell said. "I'm at peace."

PHOTOBILL FRAKESWhether he became a Viking or a Lion, Scott (with son Joshua and dog Bart) figured to be sitting pretty. TWO PHOTOSDAVID E. KLUTHOOn tour, Mitchell saw (at left, from left) Green, Hinton, Vike assistant Brian Billick and (above) Mora. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOAgnone (center), negotiating his first big deal, was with Kim and Scott every step of the way. PHOTODAVID BERGMANIn the end, Mitchell found the best fit with Detroit.
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