CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- From Day One in college Brian Mitchell knew that as a 5-foot-10 option quarterback, he wouldn't be prepared to take snaps in the NFL. Sometimes, though, he would study the Canadian Football League games on ESPN and pay careful attention to the heights and styles of quarterbacks. Would it be better to try to play quarterback in the CFL or accept a change of position and realize his dream of playing in the NFL?
One afternoon Mitchell was glued to the screen and he was impressed by a quarterback for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. This guy was taller than Mitchell but, at 6-1, still short by NFL standards. He also looked to have some run-option in his blood, but he had a strong arm. His name, Mitchell recalled, was Gilbert Renfroe.
Mitchell was about the only person in Kenan Stadium on Saturday night who had heard of Renfroe, much less seen him play. Mitchell, the Washington Redskins rookie hopeful, and Renfroe, trying to latch on with the Atlanta Falcons, are what preseason football is all about. Long shots. Veterans are holding out, many of them just hoping to blow off two-a-days; Mitchell and Renfroe cling to every opportunity as if it is a last chance. That's because it could be.
Mitchell, the Redskins' fifth-round draft choice from Southwestern Louisiana, started the game by running back the kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown. And Renfroe, the CFL refugee from Tennessee State, finished it by throwing three touchdown passes, one of them a marvelous, scrambling, twisting toss that traveled 48 yards in the air after he had turned 360 degrees.
Renfroe was the story of Atlanta's meaningless victory in Jerry Glanville's debut as Falcons head coach. Even though he had seen him on television, Mitchell said later: "Renfroe's arm strength surprised the hell out of me. He showed himself tonight, I tell you that. I'm sorry he had to get hot against us, but whew!"
Glanville, who rescued Warren Moon from the CFL, brought Renfroe in for a workout, watched him throw one pass and said to the club's personnel man, "Sign him. I'm not real bright but I know a gun when I see it."
Mitchell's talents may not be as obvious, but he may be too versatile and too smart not to make the Redskins. Not only does he return kicks and play special teams, but he has great hands and runs pass routes like a guy who's played receiver all his life. If Kelvin Bryant fails to stay healthy, there might not be any need to fret over a third-down receiver from the backfield. The Packers, when they talked to Mitchell before the draft, said they'd like to try him at cornerback. "Now that, I was a little skeptical about," Mitchell said.
Coach Joe Gibbs gave the following scouting report on Mitchell after a game in which few other individuals stood out: "Strong runner, smart guy too. What you're doing is projecting, though. You're looking at him, trying to see where he fits in. He can help us in that pass receiver spot. Right now, he's making a run at it."
Mitchell says he's going to approach the rest of the preseason as if he doesn't have a 92-yard touchdown to his credit. His attitude may make the difference. In college, the offense wasn't centered around him, it was him. "At least 75 percent of it," he said. Like Tony Rice at Notre Dame? "Much more so," he said. That's probably why he became the first player in NCAA history to pass for more than 5,000 yards and rush for more than 3,000. The Redskins may have lost Bobby Beathard, but it doesn't mean they've lost their ability to find the sleeper and put him somewhere he can contribute.
The way the Redskins' running game stalled Saturday night (36 yards, 1.7 yards per carry), Mitchell (who rushed for an NCAA-record 47 touchdowns) might need to take a handoff or two.
You'd expect the Redskins to be weak along the defensive line, with Tracy Rocker and Fred Stokes hurt and Darryl Grant holding out. But with three of the league's leading active rushers on the roster -- Gerald Riggs, Earnest Byner and James Wilder -- you'd expect the running game to be productive, even in the first preseason game. It wasn't against the Falcons, not even when the first-string offensive line was playing.
Anyway, it's far too early to get into serious discussion on what's wrong with the Redskins based on one silly preseason game. It was far more intriguing to watch the Falcons, in their new black uniforms, under the auspices of Glanville.
First prediction of the season: The Falcons will be no worse than 7-9, even in the tough NFC West. Glanville has a new book coming out called, "Elvis Don't Like Football." In it, he devotes an entire chapter -- "at least," he said -- to Sam Wyche and Chuck Noll, probably his least favorite people in football, if not life.
People who don't like Glanville should realize that without him, Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan and Wyche, the NFL coaching fraternity would be the most colorless group of men in America. A season without him would have been disastrous. Among other things Saturday night, Glanville said he was happy to be back in the South where people "don't boo gang-tackling."
Asked about next week's preseason game with Cincinnati and Wyche (who when last seen, ran it up something like 900-0 on Glanville's Oilers), Glanville said: "A man named Jim Greer in Houston sent me a black T-shirt that said, 'Will Rogers never met Sam Wyche.' I think I'll wear that on the sideline next week." One coach is already in midseason form.