8-11-01, 7:50 A.M.
BY GEOFF HOBSON
PONTIAC, Mich. _ The Bengals threw Scott Mitchell to the Lions and their boo birds Friday night and he threw them to a last-play victory over Detroit.
Feasting on his experience in a pre-season game littered with the errors of youth and rust on both sides, Mitchell returned to the building where his last pass was intercepted into a Bengals' overtime victory three years ago. He then spiced the Bengals' quarterbacks race with some Shakespearean irony.
The Bengals survived seven sacks, three turnovers, and three Detroit touchdowns of at least 53 yards for their first road pre-season victory since beating the Lions here four years and three days ago.
Mitchell, the 12-year veteran, worked his way into the heart of the Bengals' three-man quarterback scrum when he engineered 17 second-half points amid the boos of the Pontiac Silverdome. The last three came when Neil Rackers kicked a 34-yard field goal as time ran out on a suddenly silent crowd that filed out of Cincinnati's 27-24 victory.
And that came after this oddest of quarterback competitions got a little odder.
Friday night starter Akili Smith, unhappy with the five sacks that marred his quarter-and-a-half, was dying to get back in.
But he told Dick LeBeau it was OK when the Bengals head coach decided to switch gears and stick with Mitchell in the fourth quarter and not go back to Smith, which was his pre-game plan.
"I said, 'That's fine. I totally understand what's going on and how you feel he's doing,'" Smith said. "He was going to put me in for a series and then put Mitchell back in. I told him, 'You have the momentum right now. Let him go ahead and pull out the victory.'
" I could have been selfish and said, 'Dick, it's my turn to go back in. I want to go back in,'" Smith said. "But he had the momentum. He had driven us down the field, tied the game up. So go ahead and leave him in. No big deal."
LeBeau thought it was a big deal because he doesn't like to do the opposite of what he has told his players he'll do. So after Mitchell finished off the third quarter with a 13-play, 55-yard touchdown drive that cut Detroit's lead to 24-17 and the Lions missed a 54-yard field goal attempt to start the fourth, LeBeau talked to Smith and Mitchell.
"Scott was going so well and Akili had been out of the game," LeBeau said. "Akili said, 'Yeah, let him go. He's got the hot hand.' Again, I thought that was unselfish, positive and good."
Which also went for quarterback Jon Kitna, who led the Bengals to 10 points in his four series during the second quarter. As he came
out of the shower, he smiled when he saw the media milling around Mitchell's locker.
"Mitchell must have done something tonight," Kitna said.
What Mitchell did was expose Detroit's back-liners in head coach Marty Mornhinweg's debut, hitting 12 of 19 passes for 140 yards. When Mitchell threw an interception in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Lions' fans who remembered his failure to get Detroit out of the early rounds of the playoffs during three post-season appearances in the mid-90s, smelled blood.
But Mitchell responded by hitting all five throws for 44 yards in the final 74-yard drive that took the game's last 5:10.
After Mitchell hit wide receiver Chad Johnson with his first NFL touchdown catch to tie the game at 24 early in the fourth quarter, Johnson was asked about his team's quarterback picture.
While running back Corey Dillon grabbed his arm and shooshed him to be politically correct, the rookie dutifully responded, "They all look good to me.. .I have no idea who is going to be the starter."
Neither does LeBeau. But he does know Mitchell is going to start the Bengals' Aug. 25 home opener against the Bills after this week's bye.
"I thought he was very effective," LeBeau said. "The interception he threw was a mistake on the pattern. It was not his fault. I thought our offense in the second half controlled the game when we got 14 down. Our guys showed resiliency. They showed it last week. That's the biggest plus we have. We have to build on that."
Mitchell downplayed his return and what kind of impact his outing would have on the race.
"You'll have to ask Coach LeBeau," Mitchell said. "I thought I did some positive things tonight."
Mitchell played the last drive like a 33-year-old who has been there. He didn't throw a pass longer than 11 yards, finding receiver Damon Griffin underneath for four catches for 34 yards. And rookie running back Rudi Johnson bulled for 16 of his game-high 76 yards on the drive's last three plays.
"I knew the game was tied, so there was no sense trying to make any big plays," Mitchell said. "We just took what they gave us and took care of the football. Guys made some plays and some big running plays to suck it up and finished the game."
After throwing a 24-yard pass to wide receiver Danny Farmer, Mitchell found Chad Johnson for a 16-yard touchdown pass off a play-action bootleg that tied the game in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter.
"That (play action) got the flow of the defense going one way and he rolled out and I was going across the back side. I just found a little seam up in there," Johnson said. "(Mitchell) he's a leader on the field. He's a veteran and that's what veterans do."
Johnson was shocked when Mitchell jogged on the field into a wall of boos for Cincinnati's first series of the second half. But he agreed that it seemed to fire him up.
"That's got to be so hard to play with people booing you like that," Johnson said. "The entire stadium. . .I'm glad we got that win for him. Especially the way the crowd reacted."
Asked if the boos got him jacked up, Mitchell asked, "What do you think?" but then proceeded to do what he's been doing for the last week and downplayed his return.
The spirit of Corey Sawyer, the Bengals cornerback who picked off Mitchell for the winning touchdown back in September of '98, was still there with the boos.
"Nothing surprises me, to be honest," Mitchell said. "They're pretty passionate here.
"I got over it a long time ago," Mitchell said. "I've moved on with my life and career. I'm comfortable with who and where I am. . .I had a lot of good experiences here. . .I'm just not a vindictive person."
But he certainly is a viable person in the quarterbacks derby that refuses to be decided.