At an age when most kick returners have retired to their Barcaloungers, Philadelphia’s Brian Mitchell is doing anything but kicking back. Instead, he’s kicking butt.
At 33 and in his 12th season, Mitchell is leading the NFC in kickoff returns with a career-best 28-yard average and ranks third with a 13-yard average on punt returns. Mitchell’s 1,179 combined yards are the fourth best in the NFL this year.
“It’s very satisfying,” said Mitchell, who played for Washington from 1990 to 1999 and faces the Redskins for a third time Sunday at Veterans Stadium. “I’ve always concentrated on maintaining a high level. If I’m running [40 yards in] 4.5 [seconds] in the first quarter, I want to run 4.5 in the fourth quarter. I didn’t care to be a guy who would run 4.3 in the first quarter and then run 4.9 at the end of the game. My heart and my desire take me a lot farther than just having speed would.”
Mitchell’s heart, toughness and smarts have taken him to all-time NFL records in kickoff return yardage (11,106) and punt return yardage (4,079). His 94-yard touchdown on the opening kickoff against Arizona Nov. 4 was his 12th return for a score (four kickoffs, eight punts) and kept him tied with Washington’s Eric Metcalf for the all-time NFL lead.
Mitchell, who is averaging 131 combined yards this season, is also just 181 yards from joining the game’s greatest receiver, Jerry Rice, and its leading rusher, the late Walter Payton, as the only players in NFL history to accumulate 20,000 combined yards.
“Those are things you sit back [and think about] when you’re finished playing, and I have no plans of being finished anytime soon,” Mitchell said.
And why should he? Eagles coach Andy Reid is pushing Mitchell for the Pro Bowl, a status that he has achieved just once despite always impressive credentials. With Duce Staley healthy and rookie Correll Buckhalter playing well, third-down back Mitchell isn’t playing as big a role in the offense as he did in 2000, but he’s still averaging a team-best 20.3 yards per catch.
“Brian’s a special guy,” Reid said. “He loves to play. He’s very, very competitive. Whatever he has lost speed-wise, he has gained in knowledge. He keeps himself in great shape. He has been a real pleasure to have around here. It’s a neat thing to see a guy at his age again playing at a Pro Bowl level. He’s very deserving of returning there.”
A big reason why Mitchell has been voted to Hawaii just once is his pugnacious attitude on and off the field. Mitchell has been known to get in opponents’ faces, and he didn’t hesitate to criticize the Redskins for letting him go in June 2000 although his 20.8 kickoff return and 8.3 punt return averages in 1999 were his lowest in six years.
“I’m going to speak my mind,” said Mitchell, who still lives in Centreville, Va. “I don’t regret anything I’ve said. The whole thing was [the Redskins believing] I had lost a step. I said I would prove them wrong. I think I’ve done that.”
Mitchell didn’t do anything special in the Eagles’ two matchups with the Redskins last season.
“Brian didn’t have a lot of success against us, but I know he’s itching to,” said Redskins special teams leader Eddie Mason. “He wants to be able to say, ‘I did it to y’all.’ We’ve got to prevent him from doing that, and it’s not going to be easy. Brian has great vision, and he knows how to use those blocks. We have to go in with a knockout attitude. It’s going be a last-man-standing kind of game.”
Which is just the kind Mitchell likes.
“I’ve run good times in the 40, but I was never really concerned about that,” Mitchell said. “Running by yourself in a straight line, you never run as fast as you can. I rely more on strength, endurance and being physical. I’m not one to dance around a lot and try to run around guys. I try to run right through you.”