The players say they haven't been wondering, but the rest of us sure have been. Wondering whether Brian Mitchell could come up with a big return with a game on the line, or contribute a big play out of the backfield, wondering if he still had anything left in the tank after so many miles. The numbers weren't leading us to a rosy conclusion. His punt return average is significantly lower than his career average. His kick return average is the lowest it has ever been.
But the Redskins weren't studying numbers late in the fourth quarter when the Eagles tied the game, or in overtime when they needed a play on special teams, when they needed tough yardage to get in position for a game-winning field goal. They were at the point where they've been quite a few times in recent seasons, the point where they need one guy to grab the game and take it over.
Like old times, Mitchell was not only willing, but able. His 45-yard kickoff return after the Eagles had tied the game at 17 instantly steadied a wobbling team. Mitchell didn't quite take it to the House, but he got it to the front porch, or at least to the curbside mailbox, which is closer than he has been all season. His 14-yard dash on first down immediately put the Redskins in position to win the game in regulation. What a nice story if the game ends right there, if Brett Conway makes that gimme field goal to win the game and makes a hero of Mitchell.
But nothing is that easy with this team, as it proved again yesterday against Philly. You know drama is always right around the corner. A missed 28-yard field goal by Conway led to overtime, which put Mitchell into the backfield one more time. He caught a pass for nine yards, he ran for seven more. And those were the last plays of consequence from scrimmage for the Redskins before Conway finally kicked a field goal to end the game and stay in contention.
A loss yesterday would have been disastrous. Mitchell, in those four critical plays toward the end of the game, seemed determined to drag his teammates along with him to victory.
Of course, it doesn't mean the questions will stop. When you're 31 and have been one of the league's best special teams and third-down players for 10 years, it becomes a weekly guessing game as to when you'll slow down, as to whether it's time to give your job to a younger and faster guy. Everybody in town wonders aloud, the coaches wonder privately. And Mitchell?
As teammate Tre Johnson said, "If there's anything that B. Mitch lacks, it ain't confidence. His role here is being questioned publicly, and I know it's got to be tough on him. But B. Mitch is not to be taken for granted, not in my book. He's going to run his mouth and do his thing until they have to carry him off, because he's not going to quit."
Funny thing is, the Mitchell we see on Sunday is brash. The volume is always turned up. But the rest of the week, he's analytical, often introspective. For all the confidence, he's much quieter after he plays particularly well.
"It's been tough hearing things you know aren't fact," he said. "But I've talked to guys like Darrell Green and Irving Fryar, guys who have been in the league even longer than I have and who know how to handle every situation. They've reminded me that things will go wrong when you play this game, and when the criticism comes you can't take it personally."
But the questions are indeed personal. And tough. Has Mitchell lost a step? "I've heard the lost-a-step theory, and I don't buy it," Mitchell said. "I've played most of my career at 224, 225 pounds. But this season, I came in at 212 and played between that and 215. Because of that, I feel fresher than I ever have."
So what about the fact that Mitchell has averaged 23 yards per kick return over his career, but only 20 per kick return this season? What about the fact that he has averaged 11.3 yards per punt return for his career, but only 8.1 per punt this year?
Here's where it gets tricky. In 10 years, Mitchell has never blamed a teammate publicly for anything. Not once. But the fact is, special teams units have been so erratic, and have had so many guys coming and going, the blocking hasn't been close to what it was when Mitchell was averaging almost 26 yards per kick return and 14 yards per punt return. Is it him, or them? It doesn't look to the layman like the holes are there. On the other hand, the skeptic wonders, if the holes were there, could Mitchell blast through them like he used to?
Asked about yesterday's performance against the Eagles, a performance that perhaps helped save the season, Mitchell declined credit. "I've been saying all season that my success is tied to that of the others on that unit," he said. "I didn't just show up today and have a great return by myself."
It's not like Mitchell is alone in this boat. There is a growing chorus of whispers that Darrell Green has lost a step, too.
I asked Green if players such as he and Mitchell have built up at least a little benefit of the doubt from coaches, fans and media. "I would stick with Brian, I would stick with Darrell Green, I would stick with Dan Marino," Green said, naming another veteran under the has-he-lost-it attack. "But I understand that sooner or later, you can't stick with us. Personally, I don't listen to, 'Darrell can't run anymore.' I get upset with myself if I respond as if it affects me. But I also understand this is a high-dollar business. I have people who I trust who I have told, 'If you see it, tell me.' "
When you watch the Redskins barely survive a harrowing struggle with an Eagles team that isn't very good--"Maybe it's the city," Johnson said of the Eagles' never-say-die performance. "It's a tough city [Philadelphia], and maybe that rubs off on the people who live there"--it becomes obvious that the Redskins need all hands on deck for this bell lap. They need veterans who have survived tough pressure games to lead the way. The Redskins will need Green, quite obviously. They'll need Mitchell.
"This is an interesting reality, because we haven't had this before," Green said of the questions he and Mitchell are facing. "I told Brian to stop worrying about stuff and just do what he does. What he does has worked for a long time. And it still works."