Talk of Fame Network
Former return specialist Brian Mitchell ranks second in the NFL in all-purpose yards, behind only Jerry Rice, and is one of only two players in league history to lead the NFL in combined yards four times. The other? Jim Brown.
So why are Jerry Rice and Jim Brown in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Brian Mitchell is not? Answer: Special teams. The Pro Football Hall of Fame hasn't warmed up to them.
"People act as if special teams are not important," Mitchell said on the latest Talk of Fame Network broadcast. "But every coach in every locker room on every Sunday , Monday, Thursday ... whenever the game is ... is discussing special teams. So it's very important."
Mitchell was a special-teams standout – so good that he was a three-time All-Pro and is a member of Washington's Ring of Honor. But the Pro Football Hall of Fame's board of selectors is blind to special teams, inducting only two pure specialists in 53 years – kicker Jan Stenerud and punter Ray Guy. But even then it took Guy – the punter on the NFL's 75th anniversary team – nearly 30 years and eight tries as a finalist before he finally was named to Canton in 2015.
Bottom line: There's a bias against special teamers -- with the NFL's career scoring leader, Morten Andersen, still not enshrined -- and Mitchell, who hasn't been a finalist, has a message for voters who believe special-teams standouts don’t belong.
"I think those people need to go try and play it for just one year," he said. "We played in a playoff game, and I was with the Philadelphia Eagles (2000-2002) against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Ask (then coach) Jon Gruden who he was concerned with. He said, 'We were only concerned about Brian Mitchell.' If special teams don't make a difference, why weren’t they kicking me the ball? They kicked off the first one to me, and I went 75 yards. They never kicked me another ball. They were concerned what I was going to do.
"The thing of it is: I know that special teams don’t get a lot of respect. But I always thought it was the Pro Football Hall of Fame. How do you represent the Pro Football Hall of Fame when you only lean toward certain people? Yeah, we put quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, but the quarterback in my eyes is the most dependent position in all of sports. They can't do nothing without anybody else.
"We find a left tackle, and the left tackle might be a Hall of Famer. But why don't we find more right tackles to go in there? When you begin to look around you need to represent everything. Ray Guy was the best punter ever. Why should he have to worry about what Joe Montana did? We compare all this stuff.
"The thing about those guys that are returning punts and kicks is that you're getting hit when people are running full speed. People always ask me about who I worried about getting hit. And I say, 'The the guy who's 6-5, 360? I don’t care. He catches me and falls down. But the guy on special teams who goes anywhere from 5-10 all the way up to 6-5 ... that are from 180 up to 270 pounds ... they're running full speed to try to run through you.'
"I did that for 14 years. Didn’t miss but one game. I was there for my team time in and time out. Jerry Rice didn’t become the best receiver because he just got 20,000 yards in one year. He was able to stay around for a long time and be effective doing it. It wasn’t any different than what I did.
"Jerome Bettis wasn't as pretty a running back like a Barry Sanders, but he was around for a long time and doing stuff at a high level for a long time. Longevity and being accessible to your squad, being available, that should make a difference, too."
(Brian Mitchell photos courtesy of Washington Redskins and Philadelphia Eagles)