For nearly a decade, Brian Mitchell has been one of the NFL's more productive players and a major source of the Washington Redskins' competitive drive.
But two offseason moves by the Redskins are raising questions about Mitchell's grip on what has been a starring role as the team's return specialist and third-down running back.
With their selection of cornerback Champ Bailey in the first round of the draft, the Redskins got a multifaceted player whose talents include returning punts. And with their acquisition of free agent fullback Larry Centers in July, the Redskins added one of the league's top pass-catching running backs.
If Mitchell hears footsteps, however, he isn't shrinking from the competition.
"Whenever someone comes in and takes my job--if it actually happens that they take my job--he's going to be a damned good player," Mitchell said. "As long as the competition is fair, I think I have a chance, or the upper hand, on anybody because I've been around and I still feel I have experience over most people."
Coach Norv Turner insists Mitchell is as valuable as ever. Turner has designed plays featuring both Centers and Mitchell in the backfield. But Turner won't say who will be his multipurpose third-down back--a decision he may defer until shortly before the season opener Sept. 12.
Mitchell is "a big part of our team," Turner said. "As a team, you've got to play great in special teams. You've got to play field position, and Brian helps us with field position immensely."
Questions about Mitchell's status are fueled partly by Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder's eagerness to make a major trade, possibly adding a wide receiver or pass rusher. To sign a big-name player, the Redskins would have to clear room under the salary cap. Mitchell's salary is scheduled to count for roughly $1 million against the cap this year.
While releasing Mitchell would be unthinkable to many longtime fans, Snyder has ushered in a bold new era for the Redskins in which everyone's performance is being scrutinized and all assumptions are being tested.
"Everybody is speculating and asking questions about it," Mitchell said. "But I'm confident in myself and what I can do. If I start worrying about the next person, or worrying about what I hear or see or read, then I'm going to be messing up. As long as I can handle the things I do and do them well, I've got a job."
The youngest of seven children, Mitchell said his father, a 20-year Army veteran, advised him years ago to learn as many jobs as possible. That formed the foundation for his success as a Redskin. A fifth-round draft pick from Southwest Louisiana, Mitchell was told his best chance to make the team was to forget playing quarterback, as he did in college, and focus on special teams. So he went to work.
"I can remember being in college and high school and saying, 'I'll never do that [return punts]!' I just thought they were crazy--looking in the air, with all those guys coming at you," Mitchell said. "Now, I wouldn't change it for the world. Yeah, I would love to touch the ball more. But I've been able to help my team win, help my team get in position to win and also prolong my career."
Mitchell has led the NFL in total combined net yards in four of the past five years. His play last season showed no sign of slippage. Mitchell led the NFL with 2,357 combined net yards--the second-highest total of his career. His 44 receptions tied wide receiver Michael Westbrook for most on the team.
Centers has similar strengths. A two-time Pro Bowler, he had 69 receptions last year, tied for seventh overall in the NFC and second to Marshall Faulk among NFL running backs. So far during training camp, he has displayed sure hands, quick feet and fierce intensity. If Centers makes a mistake, he pounds the dirt with his fist before a coach so much as arches an eyebrow. Asked what he likes about Centers, Turner said: "Everything."
Bailey, meanwhile, is proving every bit the athlete he was billed. He has a way to go in learning to play cornerback in the NFL. Still, after practice this morning, he joined Mitchell and wide receivers James Thrash, Kevin Alexander and Tim Alexander in fielding punts.
In April, Turner said Bailey would have to master cornerback before returning punts or taking snaps as a wide receiver. Lately, Turner seems to be rethinking that stance. If so, it may be a result of Snyder's zeal to field a winning team--both on the scoreboard and at the box office. Bailey no doubt would stir excitement if he played both ways or ran the length of the field on a return as a rookie. The argument against rushing matters, of course, is the season-ending knee injury New York Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn suffered while returning a kickoff during a preseason game last year.
Mitchell, meanwhile, acted on a tip from Darrell Green about how to extend a career--he showed up for camp leaner (at 220 pounds) and more toned than a year ago. A week shy of his 31st birthday, he signed a five-year deal through 2002 that he intends to honor.
"I love being with the Redskins, and I would want to retire here," Mitchell said. "If things change--hey, anybody I play for, I'm going to feel that way about them. Of course, this will always be my first love because I was given that opportunity out of college by this organization.
"Coming from a smaller college, there has always been a drive in me to prove that it's not where you're from; it's where you're at. You can test a player's speed, you test their jump and how much they can lift. But you can't test the size of somebody's heart."