Mitchell is a superstar who said an accidental distinction, stamped on him by the sins of someone else, overshadowed his four-faceted greatness as an NFL player. Because Washington Redskins owner George Preston Marshall was a racist, Mitchell was identified inescapably as “the first black NFL player in D.C.” It’s as if, even dead, Marshall could circumscribe an African American.
Mitchell was so much more. My father and I were huge fans during Mitchell’s seven thrilling seasons in Washington, when he was the most electric man with a football in his hands in D.C. history — then or since. For us, like many in this area in the 1960s, the idea of “Mitchell, underrated?” never crossed our minds.
But from quotes in his obituary, it crossed his — and bothered him plenty.
When I read that, I decided, decades too late, to see if there was a valid, fact-based analysis of Mitchell’s career that would do him greater justice, rather than just the real-time “OMG” case that Washington fans made almost every NFL Sunday.
I was shocked at what I found. (And how I’d missed it.) As a four-way threat — running the ball from the backfield, catching passes as a wide receiver and returning kickoffs and punts — Mitchell is unique. No player has been among the very best in all four areas. Mitchell is a group photo of one.
In the category of elusive, breathtaking, breakaway burners, only Gale Sayers (never a wide receiver) is clearly better. Whose “category” is this — blending electricity and magic with stats? Okay, it’s mine on Mitchell Appreciation Day.
Let me convert you. Bar bets — okay, group Zoom bets — anyone?
Who is the only NFL player with more than 500 career rushes and 500 receptions to average more than five yards per carry (5.3) and more than 15 yards per catch (15.3)? Bobby Mitchell.
Marion Motley has the best yard-per-carry career average (5.7), with Bo Jackson second at 5.4. Bobby Mitchell is fifth best, one spot ahead of Cleveland teammate and lifelong friend Jim Brown (5.2).
How great is 5.3 yards per carry? Washington’s swift, shifty and strong Charley Taylor, also a Hall of Famer, started as a halfback and, in 442 carries, averaged just 3.4 yards.
When Mitchell, who was once the NFL’s fastest man, became a wide receiver in Washington, he averaged 16.7 yards per catch — in the top 15 ever. Several ahead of him, such as “Bullet" Bob Hayes, were world-class sprinters who specialized in deep bombs, distorting their per-catch average (and their true value). In his Washington days, Mitchell, who loved the short hitch, would rank ahead of actual route-runners Randy Moss, Michael Irvin and Calvin “Megatron” Johnson.
Sayers was the most dangerous, spectacular kick returner ever with nine scores on just 91 kickoff and 27 punt returns. That’s insane. But who is No. 2 on that list of players after 1950? Yes, Mitchell, who had eight scores on just 102 kickoff and 69 punt returns — one per 21 touches in the kicking game. No one else is close.
You may be yelling, “You forgot Devin Hester (19 kick return scores), Brian Mitchell (13), Cordarrelle Patterson, Deion Sanders and Billy 'White Shoes’ Johnson.” The closest to Mitchell is Patterson, with a score every 30 kick returns, then Hester with one every 32 touches. Deion is dazzling at one per 41, and Johnson at one per 51 is dynamite. But busting kick returns is one of the toughest, most dangerous NFL jobs. Brian Mitchell: one touchdown per 82 returns.
Bobby was four times more likely to run it back all the way than Brian.
There is simply no one else who has ever come close to ranking so high in all four ways that you can run with a football. (Sayers, in his five amazing prime years as a halfback, was never asked to be a volume pass receiver or wideout.)
We need context to see how Mitchell could drift lower in the NFL pantheon over the years. When he retired, he was second in NFL history in all-purpose yards (14,078) and fifth in scores (91). He’s now 55th and tied for 31st, respectively. Why?
The season is now 16 games, not 14, fattening modern stats. Careers last longer with better equipment. Evolving rules prevent clotheslining, spearing, face-mask grabbing and all the forms of mugging that made Mitchell’s 11 seasons seem durable for a mayhem-targeted star of his era. Motley’s prime was four seasons; Sayers’s, just five years. The great Ollie Matson (once traded for 10 players) had just six top seasons, and even Brown went to Hollywood after nine years. Mitchell shone for his first 10 seasons.
For me, Mitchell’s defining quality as a runner was that, as soon as he had the ball, he was figuring out how to make the second tackler miss, then perhaps be “long gone.” The first tackler, especially in a less athletic era of defensive backs, had almost no chance against Mitchell’s combination of world-class speed, tackle-ripping power and, above all, ability to disappear at will. He didn’t just leave tacklers grasping at air; he often faked them into face-first heaps on the ground while he barely decreased his speed.
In the 1960s, Mitchell made my bookish dad stand and yell in the living room more than any other player. We thought he was the closest-to-magic athlete in pro sports. Electric and magic are not the same as “best.” Brown was the best NFL player. Willie Mays and Bill Russell, at my house, topped Major League Baseball and the NBA.
For four years in Cleveland, Mitchell played in Brown’s shadow. After his first two years in Washington, when he combined with Norm Snead to catch 141 balls for 2,820 yards, Mitchell became an unselfish part of the Sonny Jurgensen to Taylor, Mitchell and Jerry Smith passing circus. Except for 1962-63, Mitchell always had to share the ball. And he always did, generously. But that will limit a legacy.
Mitchell now will be praised for many parts of his athletic, Washington front office, D.C. community and personal life. But, because it mattered to him, maybe we can use this chance to insist that no one else could do everything with a football under his arm with such a combination of game-breaking speed, power and instant invisibility.
In a sport where 20 players have more than 3,000 touches and Emmitt Smith got his hands on the ball almost 5,000 times, Mitchell got just 1,205 chances to glow.
But, oh, how brightly he lit our sky when he did.
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