Trying to control a conversation with Brian Mitchell can be as difficult as tackling him.
So even though the topic’s supposed to be his unprecedented success as a return specialist at the advanced age of 34, Mitchell can’t help but bring up his feelings toward Washington, where he played his first decade and where his home and family remain.
As much success as Mitchell is having in Philadelphia, he knows he should still be with the Redskins, the team against which the Eagles should clinch their second straight NFC East title Sunday in the final regular season game at Veterans Stadium.
Forget that he holds all the major records for returning punts and kickoffs. Forget that Sunday Mitchell (21,799 yards) will pass the late Walter Payton (21,803) and trail only Jerry Rice (22,172) for most yards gained in an NFL career. The feisty Mitchell can’t forget that the Redskins’ new management team of owner Dan Snyder and player personnel director Vinny Cerrato dumped him after the 1999 season.
“No one on the Redskins could tell me I was done,” Mitchell said. “They said I had lost a step, but I’ve proved them wrong. I’m still in the top [seven] in the league in both punt returns and kickoff returns. I think I can play another three or four years. They let me go because they couldn’t control me. I would play for them, but I wouldn’t be a pushover. I speak my mind. I still feel I should be in Washington. I’m still baffled that I’m not.”
Mitchell became the first Eagle in 32 years to return a punt and a kickoff for touchdowns in the same season in 2000. He finished fourth in kickoff return average and seventh in punt return average in 2001 and is second and seventh in those categories now. The Redskins, meanwhile, have yet to replace him. Deion Sanders and James Thrash, Washington’s return specialists in 2000, were gone in 2001 in favor of Michael Bates and Eric Metcalf. Ladell Betts and Kenny Watson have handled kickoffs this year, with the since-released Jacquez Green and Champ Bailey returning punts.
Mitchell, whose 100-yard kickoff return was Washington’s only touchdown in its 14-13 playoff loss at Tampa Bay in his final game with the team, has taken four kicks to the house in three years with the Eagles. Metcalf and Green did so once each for the Redskins. Washington ranks 15th in punt return average and 26th on kickoff returns this year.
And longevity hasn’t been a problem. None of the top 10 players all time in kickoff and punt return average played as long as Mitchell. Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, tops in the former speciality, was done at 28, a victim of bad knees. But the lithe Sayers was all about speed and elusiveness. The stocky, 5-foot-10, 221-pound Mitchell, who missed only one game in his career as a rookie in 1990, would just as soon run through would-be tacklers as around them.
“I still feel real good,” Mitchell said. “When I was a rookie, I wanted to play four years to get my pension. But I as I got older, [Redskins cornerback] Darrell Green told me that if I wanted to play a long time I had to run a lot more, drop some weight and keep myself in shape. And my knowledge of the game, my experience and my attitude get me over the hump. I’m always trying to prove people wrong. People have always told me what I couldn’t do.
“They said to be successful returning punts you were supposed to be very shifty and to return kickoffs you were supposed to be fast. But I’ve always done both. Now people say, ‘At his age, Brian’s not supposed to be doing that.’ They forget that I don’t have to outrun the guy returning kicks for the other team. I just to have outrun the guys covering the kicks.”
Eagles coach Andy Reid said Mitchell broke “15 or 16 tackles” in the Oct. 20 victory over the Buccaneers that might prove decisive when it comes to homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs. Mitchell had some extra motivation even if Bucs All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp didn’t spit in his face during one exchange as Mitchell claimed.
“They were doing a lot of talking to me,” Mitchell said. “I heard the old man and the ancient stuff. They don’t understand that talking to me doesn’t get me rattled. It gets me fired up and makes me want to shove it down your face. I’ve always enjoyed it when people talk. I can talk with the best of them. But the best way to shut them up is to make some plays against them.”
Mitchell invariably does. He has 378 yards more than the 40-year-old Rice this season, so if they maintain their 2002 paces in 2003, Mitchell will be the NFL’s leader in career yardage before the end of next season.
“Brian is as deserving as anybody that has made [the Hall of Fame],” Reid said. “The guy never ceases to amaze me. He’s really something special. His love for the game is contagious. And he’s still out there producing like crazy. His days aren’t limited here. He’ll be able to add to that. When you’re talking about Jerry Rice, Walter Payton and Brian Mitchell, that’s quite a class to be in.”