Baltimore Ravens quarterback Scott Mitchell can all but feel the football rust fading as he adjusts to having not played a down in almost a year.
"First preseason game, against the Eagles, first third down," he was saying after the morning practice today. "Jermaine [Lewis] runs a route and I make a bad throw. Same situation comes up last week in Atlanta, same route, and I hit Jermaine for a big first down. What happens early is that mentally you understand what to do, but your body isn't quite caught up with your mind. My instincts are coming back. I'm getting a feeling for what the game is like again. That first game felt like it'd been a long time since I played."
Mitchell's rise in the NFL was almost meteoric. After spending his first two seasons in the NFL doing little more than holding for place kicks with the Miami Dolphins, he replaced injured Dan Marino in October 1993 and played well enough to earn a huge free agent contract with the Detroit Lions.
After four mostly productive seasons with the Lions, during which he set several team records and signed an even more lucrative contract, Mitchell's star faded quickly. Last season, after throwing three interceptions and one touchdown pass in his first two regular season games, he was benched in favor of rookie Charlie Batch.
The Ravens acquired Mitchell for a third-round draft choice in 1999 plus either a fifth- or fourth-round choice next year depending on how he plays. The contract he signed with the Ravens was renegotiated to reflect that lack of production last season.
Mitchell's problems with the Ravens go beyond simply switching teams and systems. Coach Brian Billick also is in his first season, which means that everybody except the few players who were with the Minnesota Vikings last season when Billick was the offensive coordinator also is making major adjustments.
"Scott also has to size up each of his receivers," Billick said. "Jermaine runs that route differently from Justin Armour. Patrick Johnson runs it differently from Justin Armour and Qadry Ismail runs it differently from Patrick Johnson.
"So Scott has to get a feel for where he can put the ball for each of the receivers on the same type route. That just takes sheer repetition."
Mitchell's playing time will continue to increase against the Carolina Panthers Saturday night in Baltimore, to perhaps the entire first half.
Backup Tony Banks, who has either passed for or set up all three Ravens preseason touchdowns, probably will see less action than usual against Carolina. That's because recently acquired Stoney Case needs so much work.
For Mitchell, valuable timing already has been lost this week with the explosive Lewis, who developed back spasms Monday and missed the last two days of practice. But the receivers as a unit have improved significantly in the last week or so, in part because of being more familiar with the quarterbacks and also by not dropping on-target passes nearly so often.
At 6 feet 6 and 245 pounds, Mitchell makes up for a lack of mobility by being extremely strong.
"Against the Eagles," said offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh, "he took a three-stop drop and quickly got pressured, grabbed and belted around. Most other quarterbacks would have been sacked. He ripped out of the pocket and dumped the ball off for a seven-yard gain."
One of the vexing situations for Mitchell has been fumbling the snap from center or losing the ball before handing it to a runner. It's happened three times, although the Ravens have retained possession after each miscue. "It's something you take for granted," Cavanaugh said, "but when you stop thinking about it something bad can happen."
Ravens Notes: Injured Pro Bowlers Michael McCrary (knee) and Peter Boulware (shoulder) have gone at close to full speed and in pads this week for the first time in training camp. Defensive end McCrary will not play until the final preseason game, Sept. 3, Billick said. Outside linebacker Boulware has a 50-50 chance of playing against Carolina.