Mitchell Is Start of Something Special
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 30, 1998; Page D8
OAKLAND, Calif., Nov. 29 Washington Redskins return specialist Brian Mitchell had added incentive entering today's game against the Oakland Raiders. Having muffed a kickoff return in the previous week's loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Mitchell was determined to set both his record and his conscience straight.
That attitude paid off, as Mitchell returned the opening kickoff 57 yards to hand the Redskins superb field position Oakland's 40-yard line. They converted that advantage three plays later into a touchdown and a 7-0 lead 51 seconds into the game.
Paced by Mitchell's dogged play, the Redskins' special teams gave the team an early spark and proved an asset all afternoon as Washington defeated the Raiders, 29-19. The Redskins never trailed.
The victory offered vindication not only for Mitchell (who needed little, considering his performance this season), but also for the struggling special teams, which have a new coach in LeCharls McDaniel and several young players in key positions.
Mitchell had one of his best games of the season. contributing 171 yards on three punt returns and three kickoff returns. His success meant that the Redskins started three of their first four drives in Raiders territory.
"I wanted to make up, for sure," Mitchell said. "I had that fumble, so every chance I had to catch the ball, I caught it. We went out there, and I think we took a lot of pride in it because we knew we should have had a better game against the Cardinals."
Meanwhile, the special teams coverage unit all but nullified Raiders return specialist Desmond Howard, holding him to 76 yards on four kickoff returns and a punt return. Besides its strategic significance, taking Howard out of the game had huge symbolic meaning for the Redskins, who spent a first-round draft pick for his services in 1992.
"LeCharls told us before the game that Desmond wanted to do something against this team," Mitchell said. "Our kickoff coverage and punt coverage took pride in that. They basically shut him down."
Matt Turk's punting was as solid as ever. He averaged 46.4 yards, including two touchbacks, despite slippery field conditions.
Place kicker Brett Conway consistently sent the ball deep, pinning the Raiders well back on their drive starts.
Place kicker Cary Blanchard, who had missed both field goal attempts in the 45-42 loss to Phoenix, hit today from 28 and 47 yards.
"The rhythm is still not there, but we're getting it down," Blanchard said. "It's coming. It's been kind of miserable for me real miserable for me. I'm not used to kicking this way."
And the blocking on returns, Mitchell took pains to point out, was solid all day.
"That No. 27 [Raider Calvin Branch], bless his heart, they destroyed him," Mitchell said. "They hit him the first time, and he barely got up. They hit him a second time, he couldn't get up. We have Rod Milstead and Mike Sellers leading the way; those guys can do it. But overall, everybody did a great job of blocking."
Coach Norv Turner said: "Special teams got us going. There's no question, when we play well, we play well in all phases.
"Brian Mitchell is a big part of our team a big weapon for us. And those special team yards, we count those. A lot of teams say, 'Well, you did it on special teams.' We don't care how we did it. Brian and everyone on special teams played awfully hard."
Conway followed the Redskins' opening touchdown with a 70-yard kick for a touchback. The Raiders, behind a rusty Jeff George at quarterback, never got out of their own territory.
Howard managed two yards on his first punt return before Darryl Pounds brought him down.
Mitchell's second big play a 47-yard punt return helped set up Blanchard's first field goal, which gave the Redskins a 17-7 lead.
Conway opened the third quarter with a 65-yard kickoff that sailed to the Raiders 5. Howard mustered 20 yards before Malcolm Hamilton's tackle.
Turk continued making things tough for the Raiders, with punts to the 1 and 2 that were downed by Jamel Williams and Pounds, respectively.
"Overall, the special teams unit, I think, got better," Turk said. "Things take time for a unit to gel, and today we really played a good game overall."