As his first season with the Giants got cooking, it sure did not appear that Mitchell and the Giants were destined for a long-term relationship. His production was nothing special, he was limited to a reduced role within the defense and there was little other than flashes to signify his contributions. It reached the point where Mitchell himself grew frustrated by what he wasn't doing on the field.
"It was frustrating,'' Mitchell recalled recently. "Two-tackle games, three-tackle games, that's not what you want as a linebacker. I should have had more production.''
Mitchell took those concerns to his defensive coordinator, who listened intently.
"He said something to me … he wanted to know, talking about why his production was so low,'' Steve Spagnuolo said. "I said 'Kawika, you have to remember this.' He was coming out quite a bit. He has a lot of pride. He is a good professional. He was concerned about that. He just made up his mind he was going to go out and make plays and he did.''
It wasn't quite that simple. The season-ending injury to Mathias Kiwanuka forced Spagnuolo to adjust his defensive scheme. The recent spate of injuries to the safety corps forced further maneuverings. Mitchell had been a first-down linebacker who never played in the nickel or dime packages but the depletions in the secondary put him out on the field and his play kept him there.
"The more I'm on the field the more I should produce,'' Mitchell reasoned. "Before, we would put somebody in my place, a defensive back to get more speed on the field. If I'm doing well hopefully there's no reason to take me off.''
Lately, there's been no reason to take Mitchell off. Mitchell through 13 games was third on the team with 76 tackles but that is not always an accurate measure of a player's effectiveness. More and more, Mitchell is making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. He was a dervish in Chicago, making a season-high 13 tackles. He was solid again the next week with eight tackles in Philadelphia, once upending Brian Westbrook for a 3-yard loss and later stopping Westbrook for no gain. He's started every game and has grown from a situational linebacker to one who remains on the field every down.
After starting for four years for the Chiefs, Mitchell was fairly certain free agency would be good for him, that he'd have little trouble lining up a new employer. He waited, and waited and what he heard was not comforting.
"I'd call my agent every single day, what's going on, what's going on?' '' Mitchell said.
The answer was humbling: Nothing was going on. There was some talk about remaining with the Chiefs, but the vibes and the financial details weren't right.
"In the back of my head I sort of felt like I was leaving,'' Mitchell said. "They did have something on the table; our communication wasn't as good as it should have been. I guess they missed out on an opportunity and maybe I did. We'll see what happens in the future and then we can be the judge on who missed and who didn't.''
Finally, on March 27, a full month into the free agent signing period, Mitchell agreed to a one-year, $1 million contract with the Giants, certainly not the commitment nor the money he expected.
"That really helped me a lot going through that 30 days of silence,'' Mitchell said. "Silence is a hard thing to go through, because you start to come up with all other things in your head. Thanks to last year I learned don't ever assume anything, just take care of business.
"I was surprised initially. At that point I felt I was never going to work again, that was always my mindset. I think it helps push me to another level. I'll probably feel the same way this offseason.''
A preseason groin injury limited his effectiveness early in the season. He finally flashed his potential in the third game when he rose up during a dramatic defensive goal-line stand at FedEx Field. With the Redskins poised to pull even, first-and-goal from the Giants 1-yard line, Mitchell first knocked away a pass intended for tight end Mike Sellers and on the very next play pulled down Ladell Betts for no gain to help save a 24-17 victory, the first of the season for the Giants.
"I always felt like I belonged here,'' Mitchell said. "I wanted to show them something, that when I first came in that it just wasn't a fluke, that I just wasn't a guy who can run around without pads on, because some people get that reputation. It's not how you begin; it's how you finish.''
If Mitchell continues his strong finish, the Giants figure to be inclined to make him an offer to keep him. Mitchell said there's been no conversation about a contract extension.
"Not right now and to be honest I'm not really concerned,'' he said. "I've already been through that and the situation didn't quite go as expected. I've had some experience with it, I just know to let it be and everything will take care of itself. I like the city, I like the team, the coaches are a good group of guys, I talk to [general manager Jerry] Mr. Reese all the time. I like the program. We'll just have to see what happens.
"I have a family to take care of so I'm always trying to make an impression. I have to feed my family; hopefully their eyes are open, that's about it. I really don't think about it too much.''
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