Brian Mitchell can't be certain what to think.
Coach Norv Turner said yesterday he has no plans to replace Mitchell as the Washington Redskins' primary return man on kickoffs and punts. Mitchell said no one in the organization has told him the team believes he has lost a step and is ready to phase him out of the return game.
Last Sunday, however, special teams coach LeCharls McDaniel told Mitchell on the sideline to allow James Thrash to return the next kickoff. There wasn't one, however, because the Chicago Bears resorted to onside kicks in the Redskins' lopsided victory.
But Mitchell, 31, says he has heard whispers around Redskin Park that some club officials believe he's on the down side of his career, and the team should begin making plans to replace him. Mitchell disagrees.
"I hear little things," Mitchell said. "I hear stuff in the media. I hear stuff that I know is leaking out of this organization. I'm a grown man. I understand all this stuff. There is nobody in this organization to tell Brian Mitchell when he's done, except Brian Mitchell. There are a lot of people we told were done, and they're still doing it in this league. I'm not going to sit here and get frustrated by what people say."
This season has been a struggle for Mitchell. He's averaging 7.4 yards per punt return and 19.3 yards per kickoff return. He's not in the top 10 in the NFC in either category. He mostly has been absent from the Redskins' offense, with seven catches and 16 rushing attempts in seven games. Last season, he tied for the team lead with 44 receptions.
Turner acknowledged yesterday that coaches decided to have Thrash return a kickoff against the Bears. But that, Turner said, was because Mitchell was suffering from a few nagging injuries, which Mitchell confirmed. Turner added he has no plans to give Thrash an audition for Mitchell's job on kickoff returns.
"Right now, we're staying where we're at," Turner said. "We're going to see if we can get Brian loose for a long one. In that game, Brian was banged up, so we decided to give James a chance."
Mitchell said: "I take them at their word."
But Mitchell added: "LeCharls had told me on like every third or fourth return, let [Thrash] catch it if it's going toward him. I told him, 'Fine.' I don't make anything out of it. I was banged up going into the game. I don't read anything into anything. . . . But, hey, if that's what it is [that the team is losing confidence in him], be man enough and say it. I have no problem with anything. This business is a business where things are going to come to a point where it's not going to be exactly what you want to hear. If that's it, that's it."
Thrash, a reserve wide receiver, said he isn't looking to take Mitchell's job, but wants to contribute.
"I don't know what's going on," Thrash said. "But if they're going to give me an opportunity, I'm going to try to take full advantage of it."
Mitchell, who's in his 10th season with the Redskins, is only three yards shy of Billy "White Shoes" Johnson for second place among the NFL's career leaders in punt return yards. Mitchell and Jim Brown are the only players to lead the league in combined net yards (rushing, receiving and return yards) in a season four times.
Mitchell said he knows some Redskins officials want to begin easing him out of the team's plans, but he declined to say which club officials.
"I've been very frustrated this year, but I'm not the type of person that does a lot of complaining," he said. ". . . The thing that bothers me is when you start getting a bad rap, and it's not necessarily all you. It's not your fault. If people are not man enough to come up to me and say something, I have a problem with that.
"I've given everything I've had to this team for 10 years. If they have something going on behind closed doors, I have a problem with it. Come to me and talk to me. If you feel I'm not doing what I'm supposed to be doing, tell me and sit me down. If that's what you think, let me know that. I've never been a person to shy away from criticism.
". . . I can tell you one thing: There is a change in the way people handle things around here. It used to be always out front. I don't trust a lot of people around here any more. But I trust the guys inside this locker room. That's all I care about."
Mitchell said he's getting the yardage out of his returns that he should, based on the blocking he's getting.
"I'm getting what's there," he said. "You can't expect me to go out there and run through three, four or five people. I still run as hard as I ever did. If there's 15 yards to get, I get 15 yards. Whenever I've had a big return, the first people I thank are the people that were blocking. I can't do it by myself. Whoever out there expects me to do it by myself, they have a problem. I don't care what anybody says--there's not a returner out there that's doing it by himself."
The Redskins have had trouble getting Mitchell involved in their offense after the offseason acquisition of pass-catching fullback Larry Centers.
"It hasn't panned out the way I thought it would," Mitchell said. "It hasn't panned out the way we were working it in practice. I don't think Larry is totally happy with the way he's involved with the offense, either. But we're winning football games, so why complain?"
And that, Mitchell said, is the bottom line--the 5-2 record of the NFC East-leading Redskins entering Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills at Redskins Stadium.
"I'm having fun because ultimately I'm a team player," he said. "The team is winning. With the way things are going for me personally, no, I'm not happy. But the team winning is the most important thing."
Redskins Notes: The NFL fined the Redskins' Kenard Lang and Andy Heck and the Bears' Olin Kreutz $5,000 apiece for on-field altercations during last Sunday's game. Heck said he won't appeal the fine. Lang indicated he might appeal but doesn't expect to have the fine reduced or overturned if he does. . . .
Cornerback Champ Bailey was named the NFL defensive rookie of the month for October. . . .
If the Redskins use Matt Turk as their punter against the Bills and cut fill-in punter Brian Hansen, they may activate defensive back David Terrell off their practice squad to take Hansen's roster spot Sunday. Guard Rod Milstead could be re-signed next week for that roster spot.
CAPTION: "There is nobody . . . to tell Brian Mitchell when he's done, except Brian Mitchell," return man says.