Do you remember when Rams punt returner Austin Pettis declined to fair catch three consecutive Redskins punts last week, choosing instead to get kerplunked by three different members of the Redskins coverage unit? And how the Redskins were penalized on two of those hits, once when Perry Riley was called for hitting a defenseless receiver and once when Niles Paul was whistled for a helmet-to-helmet blow, negating a Pettis fumble?
Well, you were probably angry at those calls, but not as angry as Brian Mitchell.
“They should have called a 15-yard penalty on [Pettis] and ejected him for being a damn idiot,” the typically understated Mitchell told me this week. “Oh man, I lost my mind. Punt return, people say it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous if you do stupid things. When you catch three balls in a row, and you’re hit every time as soon as you touch the football, you’re not being smart.”
As for the penalties on the Redskins, which Mitchell correctly predicted would lead to a five-digit fine for Paul?
“Perry Riley and also Niles Paul, they timed it perfectly,” Mitchell said. “They should not be penalized because the return man was stupid. He caught the ball where he should have been fair catching, and they’re saying defenseless receiver? I understand the game may have changed, but if you have the football in your hands, you’re not defenseless. If he had waved for his fair catch, now he’s defenseless if you hit him. But when you don’t fair catch and you catch the football, you’re fair game. I mean, that’s just the way football is.”
Mitchell was watching the Rams game in the Comcast SportsNet studios, preparing for his post-game duties. When he upbraided Pettis for refusing to wave for a fair catch, another guest, Kevin Blackistone, said that Mitchell caught plenty of dangerous punts in his day.
But as Mitchell pointed out, he remains the all-time leader in NFL fair catches with 231, 69 more than any other player. His 33 fair catches with the Eagles in 2000 remains a single-season NFL record. He said a huge part of his learning curve involved knowing how many times he could take his eyes off the ball to survey the coverage, and that he would stare defenders in the face when they were within three paces.
“My first few years, I was similar to that guy right there, where I would lock onto the football,” Mitchell said. “Niles Paul and Riley did how they’re supposed to do it. That guy is not putting his hand up and protecting himself, so you’re supposed to make him want to be protected next time.”
“And I understand what the league is trying to do, they’re trying to make the game safer, this that and the other,” Mitchell continued. “But when you’re getting guys bigger stronger and faster, injuries will happen. I think ultimately what’s happening right now, people are getting fined and penalized because of injuries, not because of illegal activity, and I think that’s wrong.”
Indeed, photos of Paul’s hit appear to show that he came up just short of hitting Pettis’s head, which is what Paul himself argued. Teammate Adam Carriker jokingly offered to pass a collection plate at church for Paul’s $20,000 fine, and a memorabilia site is marketing Paul autographs as the “Niles Paul Fine Fund.” I’m not sure if Brian Mitchell is a contributor, but he’s definitely there in spirit.
“Niles Paul, he’s a gunner, he’s taught slow up, slow up and time the ball,” Mitchell said. “They can look in your eyes, they see when your eyes are getting big when the ball’s about to get there, they teach ‘em how to slow up and then explode into you. And he and Perry did an unbelievable job. It’s just that they’ve got this new softie rule. That kills me. You’re sitting there and watching flag football, basically.”