Will talent, controversy, or both follow former B.C. Lion Khalif Mitchell to Toronto?

Andrew Bucholtz
April 2, 2013

By and large, the CFL's most successful teams operate on the basis that talent is talent; a lot can be overlooked if the player's good enough. Sometimes, though, controversies on and off the field can become enough of a headache to move even a talented player. That appears to be the case with the B.C. Lions' decision to send defensive tackle Khalif Mitchell to the Toronto Argonauts for defensive end Adrian Awasom and the rights to a negotiation-list player.

Based on pure talent alone, that doesn't seem like a huge return for Mitchell; he's been a league all-star as recently as 2011, has a mix of size (he's listed at 6'5'', 316 pounds) and speed that's extremely rare in the CFL, is turning just 28 this year and can be one of the league's most disruptive interior pass-rushers when he's at his best. Given all the controversies Mitchell provoked this past season and what seemed to be an eroding relationship between him and the Lions, it's hard to fault B.C. for making this move, though. (Running back Andrew Harris doesn't seem too broken up about it.) The key question is which Mitchell Toronto will land; the 2011 version who dominated the line of scrimmage and was one of the most crucial components in their Grey Cup victory, the 2012 version who earned suspensions from both the league and his team, or a combination of both? If Mitchell can play at close to the level he did in 2011, he could be a vital piece for the Argonauts. Physically, Mitchell's an extreme rarity in the CFL: he has the size of an NFL interior lineman, but he has enough speed to handle the Canadian game. In 2011, he proved dominant against the pass, recording six sacks as an interior rusher despite frequently being double-teamed, and he also stood up well against the run, picking up 33 tackles. That was an extremely dominant line overall, with Mitchell, Eric Taylor and Aaron Hunt rotating in the defensive tackle spots, but Mitchell was arguably its linchpin, and the disruption they achieved on the interior paved the way for the success of edge rushers Keron Williams, Khreem Smith and Brent Johnson.

Argonauts' general manager Jim Barker and head coach Scott Milanovich certainly know the value of a good defensive line, as Toronto's own edition proved the crucial element in their Grey Cup win this year, and given the amount of defensive line attrition they faced this year (Grey Cup starters Ricky Foley, Armond Armstead, Adriano Belli and Ronald Flemons plus primary backup Ejiro Kuale have all left, retired or been released), the Argonauts are an exceptionally logical destination for Mitchell. If he regains his 2011 form, this will look like a brilliant move for them.

Mitchell returning to top, non-controversial form is far from a certainty, though, as his 2012 campaign was a roller-coaster ride. The jubilation in B.C. over his surprising decision to turn down the NFL and return to the Lions turned sour quickly, as he earned a two-game suspension in July for grabbing and hyperextending the arm of Eskimos' offensive lineman Simeon Rottier. That suspension was later upheld by an arbitrator, a rarity in this league and a move that speaks to how severe Mitchell's transgression was. Plays of that sort aren't going to be tolerated by the league, and if he does something similar again, the consequences may be even stronger.

The problems weren't all on the field, either, as Mitchell created a controversy with some racist remarks on Twitter following the U.S. presidential debate and was suspended by the Lions for doing so. Even when not suspended, his play wasn't all that great (he recorded just two sacks and 15 tackles during the year), and he appeared to fall out of favour with B.C. head coach Mike Benevides and general manager Wally Buono. Mitchell was still a starter by the Lions' final playoff game against Calgary, but 2012 first-round draft pick Jabar Westerman (who also carries the advantage of being Canadian) was seeing more and more snaps by the end of the season, suggesting that Mitchell might not be long for the team. Thus, it isn't all that surprising to see his time in B.C. come to an end. If the Argos get the 2012 version of Mitchell, this might not be as celebrated of an acquisition.

The existence of über-talented players who get into trouble on and off the field is certainly not a new development, though, and football history has shown them as a great force for both good and ill. One particularly compelling example is famed New York Giants' linebacker Lawrence Taylor, perhaps one of the most dominant football players ever but a man whose career featured plenty of controversies around drugs, alcohol and women. There's a revealing anecdote in David Halberstam's "The Education Of A Coach" book about Bill Belichick (then the Giants' defensive coordinator, now the New England Patriots' head coach) and how he handled Taylor; Taylor was exceptionally smart on the field, but often showed up to team meetings drunk, high, and once even in handcuffs thanks to a woman who had locked him up and taken off with the key. As Halberstam writes, a player like Taylor created massive problems as well as opportunities:

But, if getting a player of Taylor's magnitude was the rarest thing for any coach, let alone a young assistant coach, it also presented a dilemma. For if he played on the edge, beyond the capabilities of other players, he lived over the edge; he broke team rules, he drank excessively, he did increasingly dangerous amounts of drugs, and he womanized openly and increasingly carelessly. ... For the Giant coaches the dilemma was a serious one: there was one set of rules for the other players and another for Lawrence Taylor. He did not study the playbook, but he did not have to—it all seemed to come to him intuitively; he showed up at meetings, sometimes still drunk, or hungover at the very least, wearing dark glasses and a hat pulled down over his face; on occasion he slept through defensive team meetings.

That there were two sets of rules bothered the coaches, because it undermined their authority; it meant that they were being bent by his sheer talent. But they accepted him for what he was, and the players accepted him, too—any dissent from them was a light murmur of protest, and there was a consensus that because he was the great LT, and because the team needed him so badly, and because he played so hard on Sunday and was in many ways such a good teammate, they were all willing to make an exception. A coach would tamper with him at his own risk.

There's no direct comparison here, as even at his best, Mitchell is not even close to the once-in-a-lifetime player Taylor was at his peak. Also, his controversies so far haven't even come close to what Taylor did during his career. The central dilemma is similar, though; how much latitude should coaches allow an extraordinarily talented player, and how many controversies can talent overcome? For the Giants, the decision to go along to get along with Taylor paid off; he was one of the key forces in the two Super Bowls they won during that era. It doesn't always turn out that way, though, and getting rid of a distraction can also be beneficial at times, particularly if that distraction isn't performing at a superstar level. It's going to be fascinating to watch how the Mitchell move plays out for the Argonauts; can he return to his dominant form, will controversy continue to dog him, and if both happen, just how much leeway will they grant him?