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The Redskins’ biggest scoring threat this season doesn’t even play much offense. Against Minnesota last weekend, return man Brandon Banks seemed to be on the verge of going all the way every time he touched the ball. His fourth-quarter punt return for a touchdown would have turned a defeat into a victory had it not been nullified by an illegal block.
Yet even though the refs didn’t allow Banks’ big return to stand, it was the Skins’ top highlight from an otherwise hum-drum day. And Banks’ continued derring-do has called attention to a position that never gets its due.
Brian Mitchell’s old position.
“I love what Brandon Banks is doing,” says Mitchell, the former Redskins hero who is now a host of local sports-talk radio shows. “I love that people are noticing him, looking at the kick returner.”
Around here, whenever anybody notices a return man, the talk eventually gets around to Mitchell.
Banks makes jaws drop with quick cuts and otherworldly vision. Mitchell’s body of work provides similar wows.
Between 1990 and 2003, he set team and league records in nearly every major career return category. Mitchell’s all-purpose yardage total—23,316 yards worth of kick returns, rushing and receiving—is the second-highest total in NFL history, and puts him between Jerry Rice (23,546) and Walter Payton (21,803) on the all-time list.
Football coaches at every level preach field position. Yet Mitchell knows better than anybody that for all that preaching, all yards are not viewed equally, by coaches or fans or Hall of Fame voters.
Since so many of Mitchell’s yards came as a special teamer, his totals don’t earn him the same reverence reserved for receivers like Rice or runners like Payton.
But, when compared to his special teams peers, nobody touches Mitchell.
Most of his yards came during his 10 seasons in Washington, from 1990 to 1999. His relationship with the fan base was damaged when he left town—Mitchell was cut as the Redskins signed Deion Sanders, a favorite of new owner Dan Snyder. Mitchell never let on that he was anything but peeved by the slight. But the stats sheets still show Mitchell remains miles ahead of any other return man ever to wear the burgundy and gold.
Like, literally miles ahead: Mitchell’s 13,062 yards on combined kickoff and punt returns here is more than double the closest Redskin (Mike Nelms’ 6,076).
Mitchell put up huge numbers in college, too. He was a quarterback, and in his years at Southwestern Louisiana he rushed for 5,447 yards and had 3,335 passing yards. Mitchell is credited with being the first player in NCAA history to rush for at least 5,000 yards and pass for 3,000 yards. His 47 rushing TDs at Southwestern Louisiana were also cited as an NCAA record.
So by the time he got here, Mitchell had already proven he could do it all on a football field– except return a kickoff or punt.
“I never had returned a kick in my life before I got to the Redskins,” he says.
But the Redskins roster already featured a franchise quarterback—Mark Rypien—and veteran Pro Bowlers Gerald Riggs and Earnest Byner as running backs. So Mitchell was told that the only way he was going to get the ball, and the only way he’d even make the team, was via special teams. When coach Wayne Sevier asked Mitchell to be the return man on a kickoff in a 1990 preseason game against Atlanta, he said, “Sure!”
The very first time Mitchell touched a football as a pro, he returned a kick 92 yards for a TD.
Sevier then began sending Mitchell out to field punts, too. He didn’t know much about that job—“I thought returning punts was for crazy people,” he says—but from his earliest days in D.C. he’d been told all about Nelms, who had retired in 1984. Nelms was revered by players and fans alike for one attribute: He refused to call for fair catches. (“I think they got me for five fair catches in five years,” says Nelms, who retired in 1984 and now lives in Spotsylvania County. “I wasn’t brave. Brave is when you do something even when you are afraid. I wasn’t afraid. I guess I was crazy.”).
“I heard about Mike Nelms,” Mitchell says. “So I when I went back there to return punts, I told myself I’d be the same way: I’m not going to fair catch! But after getting hit a few times, I started thinking, ‘You know, they allow fair catches for a reason!’”
Mitchell now owns the NFL record for fair catches.
Nelms isn’t the only returner Mitchell couldn’t emulate. Before Mitchell, the typical NFL kick returner fit the Gale Sayers mold: scatback runners, shifty and speedy. Brandon Banks is cut from that same cloth.
But Mitchell was built more like a linebacker than he was a return man. And his playing style had as much Dick Butkus as it did Sayers.
As the great sportswriter Richard Justice of The Washington Post wrote of Mitchell in 1991: “His running style isn’t what people have come to expect from big-play punt returners. He’s not a flashy, slashing runner and doesn’t have Bo Jackson speed. He hasn’t made his money going for the sidelines, but straight up the middle, daring cover men coming straight for him that he can take them on one on one.”
He says now his burly build and attack-man outlook kept him in the game long enough to break all the return records. He worries for Banks’ long-term prospects.
“Football coaches have always taken the small shifty guys and put them out there, and the small shifty guys start out strong,” he says. “But when the small shifty guys start getting hit by the 250- and 270-pound guys running full speed, that changes things. They don’t last long. Brandon has great vision, and I’m amazed by his heart and his drive. But his size…I look at him like a little brother. When I watch him out there, it’s ‘PLEASE don’t hit him!’”
After the Redskins, Mitchell went on to play for the Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants. He retired in early 2005. (The team re-signed him briefly so he could retire as a Redskin.)
With its mandated five-year waiting period, Mitchell is now eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Strictly by the numbers, he’s a shoo-in. Once again: Jerry Rice is the only man in NFL history to gain more yards on a football field than Brian Mitchell. And no kick returner anywhere in any era put up anything close to Mitchell’s numbers.
But Mitchell’s name doesn’t normally come up in mainstream stories about the most likely candidates for induction. The names of the semifinalists for the 2011 Hall of Fame class were announced this week. Mitchell’s wasn’t among them. (Alas, Sanders’ was.)
Only one special teams player, Ray Guy, made the 26-man cut. Mitchell will be rooting for the longtime Oakland Raiders punter to get in.
“If a guy’s the best at his position, that should be enough for the Hall of Fame,” says Mitchell. “Special teams are a part of football. Accept that. Ray Guy shouldn’t have to compete against Dan Marino to get in. I shouldn’t have to compete against Dan Marino. Can Dan Marino punt? Can Dan Marino return a kick?”
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