The one question no one was asking when Scott Mitchell signed
his new four-year contract with the Lions in February was
whether or not the $21 million included a 32 [cents]
reimbursement for the stamp Mitchell used to mail in the last
part of the Lions' 1996 season. After being benched for a series
by then coach Wayne Fontes in a 35-7 loss to the Giants on Oct.
27, Mitchell was positively awful the rest of the year. He threw
three touchdowns and six interceptions in his final five games,
all losses. That horrific finish helped land Detroit in the
division cellar with a 5-11 mark and dealt the death blow to the
chronically imperiled Fontes regime.
Gone with Fontes is his beloved one-back, three-wideout set. New
coach Bobby Ross plans to install a pro-set offense with two
receivers and, finally, a fullback to keep Barry Sanders company
in the backfield. The odd receiver out is Brett Perriman, who
had 94 catches last year but was allowed to leave as a free
agent in favor of the more dependable Herman Moore and the
faster Johnnie Morton.
To Moore, less traffic downfield means more room to operate.
"It's hard to move three receivers," he says. "It's a lot easier
to move just two. Most teams don't respect the run out of a
three-receiver set. They play pass first. Two receivers give us
a little more flexibility and keep us from being predictable."
Morton, Detroit's first-round pick in '94, has grumbled that he
doesn't get the ball enough; now, moving from the slot to
wideout, he'll be seeing plenty of action. He's also going into
his free agent year--added incentive for him to boost his
July 15, 1997
The fullback will be either Cory Schlesinger, a third-year man
who has had one carry for one yard in two seasons, or Tommy
Vardell, who in five injury-riddled NFL seasons has scored just
five rushing TDs. Nevertheless, Sanders likes the idea of having
a fullback alongside him, and Ross is optimistic that
Schlesinger or Vardell will step up. "That's gone from being a
position we've created to a position of strength," Ross says.
The key to the Lions attack will be Mitchell, who, after
enduring a tumultuous relationship with Fontes, went to great
lengths to get off on the right foot with Ross. "Everything's a
lot different than we're used to around here," says the
southpaw. "Bobby leaves nothing to chance. He puts players in
the best situation to win. There's not going to be any confusion
about assignments and responsibilities. He believes in
Ross has his share of kind words for Mitchell. "I like Scott,"
the coach says. "He's been to every workout we've had--every
run, every lifting session. He appears to pick things up well."
Ross's top priority in the off-season was to shore up the
defense. His first move was to re-sign left end Robert Porcher,
who led the team in sacks. Porcher and tackle Luther Elliss give
Detroit half a good line, but the other two spots are question
marks. Though the Lions had no competent replacement for aging
tackle Henry Thomas, he was waived in a salary cap move; right
end Tracy Scroggins missed most of the '96 season with ankle
The linebacking corps never recovered after free agent Chris
Spielman went to the Bills last year; Michael Brooks and Pepper
Johnson struck out trying to fill the void. This year's
candidates in the middle are unproven veteran Stephen Boyd and
rookie Matt Russell.
The secondary is a complete mess. Strong safety Bennie Blades,
who was the heart of the Lions' defense after Spielman left,
signed with Seattle, and the remaining defensive backs are
largely untested or undersized--or both. But first-round pick
Bryant Westbrook of Texas is a promising cornerback and will
lend some athleticism to the group.
The early signals are that Ross's ship will be significantly
tighter than that of Fontes. Ross moved training camp from the
Silverdome to Saginaw Valley State University, two hours north
of the distractions of Detroit, and sent word that players would
no longer be allowed to go home between camp practice sessions.
He arranged to have a chain crew and refs at every
practice--even during minicamp--and took a far less cavalier
attitude than Fontes might have when confronted with a
discontented Sanders, who skipped a mandatory workout session to
protest the fact that Mitchell had been taken care of
financially but he had not. "I'd like to be home taking walks
with my wife," Ross said. "There's work to be done."
BY THE NUMBERS
1996 Record: 5-11 (fifth in NFC Central)
1996 Yards per Game (NFL rank)
Rushing Passing Total
OFFENSE 113.1 (12) 200.2 (18) 313.3 (20)
DEFENSE 125.4 (25) 209.0 (18) 334.4 (20)
Forward and Backward
Barry Sanders led the NFL last season both in rushes of 20 or
more yards and in rushes for negative yardage--the third
consecutive year in which he has achieved that dubious double.
Most rushes of 20 Most rushes for negative yardage
or more yards in 1996 in 1996
Barry Sanders, Lions 12 Barry Sanders, Lions 44
Napoleon Kaufman, Raiders 9 Curtis Martin, Patriots 40
Terry Allen, Redskins 8 Garrison Hearst, Bengals 37
Eddie George, Oilers 8 Eddie George, Oilers 33
Adrian Murrell, Jets 7 Karim Abdul-Jabbar, Dolphins 31
Lamar Smith, Seahawks 7 Four players tied with 30
PLAYER TO WATCH
Ever wonder what happened to Glyn Milburn? With the Broncos in
his first three NFL seasons, the 5'8", 171-pound scatback out of
Stanford averaged 53 rushing attempts and 46 receptions, and
looked like the second coming of Eric Metcalf. The Lions
acquired him for a pair of draft picks before the '96 season and
signed him to a three-year, $3 million deal--then relegated him
exclusively to kick returns; Milburn did not handle the ball on
a single play from scrimmage the entire season. This year, with
Brett Perriman gone to free agency, Milburn should see
significant time at wideout. "From what I've been told, I'll
have a threefold role," says Milburn. "I'll return kicks, play
split end and come out of the backfield. It's great just to be
able to play."
PROJECTED LINEUP With 1996 Statistics
Head Coach: Bobby Ross
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Scott Mitchell 42[*] 437 att. 253 comp. 57.9%
2,917 yds. 17 TDs 17 int.
RB Barry Sanders 2[*] 307 att. 1,553 yds. 5.1 avg.
24 rec. 147 yds. 6.1 avg.
FB Cory Schlesinger 337[*] 0 att. 0 yds. avg. N.A.
0 rec. 0 yds. 0 avg. 0 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Herman Moore 26[*] 106 rec. 1,296 yds. 9 TDs
WR Johnnie Morton 95[*] 55 rec. 714 yds. 6 TDs
WR Glyn Milburn 152[*] 0 rec. 0 yds. 0 TDs
TE David Sloan 286[*] 7 rec. 51 yds. 0 TDs
PK Jason Hanson 119[*] 36/36 XPs 12/17 FGs 72 pts.
KR Glyn Milburn 152[*] 64 ret. 25.4 avg. 0 TDs
PR Glyn Milburn 152[*] 34 ret. 8.4 avg. 0 TDs
LT Ray Roberts 6'6" 308 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Mike Compton 6'6" 297 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
C Kevin Glover 6'2" 282 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Jeff Hartings 6'3" 283 lbs. 11 games 10 starts
RT Juan Roque (R)[A] 6'8" 333 lbs. 11 games 11 starts
LE Robert Porcher 66 tackles 10 sacks
LT Luther Elliss 49 tackles 6 1/2 sacks
RT Mike Wells 30 tackles 0 sacks
RE Tracy Scroggins 16 tackles 2 sacks
OLB Antonio London 68 tackles 3 sacks
MLB Matt Russell (R)[A] 137 tackles 3 sacks
OLB Reggie Brown 50 tackles 0 sacks
CB Bryant Westbrook(R)[A] 52 tackles 2 int.
SS Van Malone 75 tackles 1 int.
FS Mark Carrier [A] 51 tackles 2 int.
CB Corey Raymond 66 tackles 1 int.
P John Jett [A] 74 punts 42.6 avg.
[A] New Acquisition (R) Rookie (college statistics)
[*] *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 165)