Brian Mitchell said yesterday he wants to return next year for an 11th season with the Washington Redskins, and believes his recent play should be enough to convince team officials that he can be productive next season and perhaps beyond.
"I haven't talked to anybody about it, [but] I don't see why I wouldn't be back," said Mitchell, a running back and kick returner. "I want to be here. I think I've shown in the last three or four weeks that I deserve to be back. I've been with this team for 10 years, and I would love to finish my career here."
Redskins Coach Norv Turner declined to discuss Mitchell's future with the team yesterday, but praised his play this season.
"Brian has played awfully well, especially the last few weeks," Turner said. "Brian is showing he can still make plays."
Team owner Daniel M. Snyder told veteran wide receiver Irving Fryar recently that he is welcome to return next season, and club officials have indicated that the welcome mat also would be out for cornerback Darrell Green if he wants to play an 18th season with the Redskins next year. But Mitchell, 31, said no one in the organization has spoken to him about next season, and he hasn't brought up the subject to any of the team's decision-makers.
"I've never approached them," said Mitchell, who needs 28 yards to supplant Mel Gray as the NFL's all-time leader in combined kick and punt return yards. "That's not for me to do. I make my statements about that with how I play on the field. The Brian Mitchell you saw last week, do you think he's finished? I still have it. I think I can still do it. Hopefully, people will see that."
Mitchell's contract runs through the 2002 season, but it has seemed at times this season that he was being eased out of the team's plans.
Reserve wide receiver James Thrash has begun to split kickoff return duties with him, and the Redskins have struggled to get both Mitchell and fullback Larry Centers involved in their passing game. Mitchell's averages of 20.5 yards per kickoff return and 8.4 yards per punt return would be his lowest in a season since 1993.
But Mitchell's productivity has increased in recent weeks, and he thinks he should be included in the Redskins' plans for at least next season.
"I have three years left on my contract," he said. "I think I should be able to play one or two more seasons here. I have a desire to play that one more year here, if not more. Who's to say I won't be able to play out the whole three years? I think I can."
With a win over the 49ers Sunday night at San Francisco, the Redskins would ensure their first playoff appearance since the 1992 season, when Joe Gibbs was coach.
They have three first-round selections in next April's college draft--perhaps even the first choice overall--and Mitchell hopes the franchise is about to recapture its glory days of the 1980s and early '90s under Gibbs and late owner Jack Kent Cooke, when the Redskins won three Super Bowls.
"I think it's headed in the right direction," Mitchell said. "We have those three first-round draft picks for next year. We brought in some good guys this year. Our new owner, he's very aggressive in what he wants to do, and the players are feeding off that. It's a new era. The Cooke era was a good era. I think the Snyder era is going to be the same way."
Mitchell joined the Redskins in 1990 and made playoff appearances in his first three seasons with the team. He was with the 1991 club that went 14-2 in the regular season en route to a Super Bowl victory. He has endured the playoff drought under head coaches Richie Petitbon and Turner, and he's eager for it to end Sunday.
"The last few years, I think we had a good enough team to make it, and we didn't," he said. "I've done a lot of personal things over those years, but it hasn't been that much fun. . . . It's been too long. It's time to get something going. It's time to let others sit and watch while we're still playing."
The Redskins' last playoff game was on Jan. 9, 1993, at San Francisco, and Mitchell had a critical fumble in a 20-13 loss. He might have an opportunity to redeem himself on the same field Sunday.
The Redskins probably will be without tailback Stephen Davis, the NFL's leading rusher, who has a sprained left ankle. Skip Hicks is penciled in to start in his place. But Mitchell could see plenty of time as well--as he did in the second half last Sunday at Indianapolis, when he rushed for 34 yards on four carries and had six catches for 61 yards.
It was the sort of fiery, productive performance that the Redskins have expected from Mitchell in recent seasons, and have gotten again in recent weeks. They didn't get those outings from Mitchell early this season, but Turner said that largely was the product of the play of those around Mitchell.
"Brian is a great competitor," Turner said. "We've played a lot of different guys on our return teams this year. It wasn't until midway through the year that we got some consistency on our return teams in terms of our blocking. He's played better as we've played better as a unit. He certainly has played awfully well the last month."
Said Mitchell: "The amount of chances I've had to touch the ball this season is not what I want. It's a business. That's how things happen. But I persevered.
"All that talk about whether I've lost a step--I didn't allow it to become a hindrance to me. It has helped me. I want to prove some things to people. I've dispelled some of that, but you're always going to have your doubters."
CAPTION: "I've been with this team for 10 years, and I would love to finish my career here," said the Redskins' Brian Mitchell (30), who is nearing the NFL's record for return yardage in a career.
CAPTION: Redskins Coach Norv Turner says Brian Mitchell, left, "has played awfully well, especially the last few weeks. Brian is showing he can still make plays."