State Your Case: Voters need to wake up to what made Brian Mitchell so special

Photo courtesy of Washington Redskins

Brian Mitchell was an extraordinary returner, yet Hall-of-Fame voters haven't acted on him. Here's why they should.

When we had former return specialist Brian Mitchell on the Talk of Fame Network’s radio program three years ago, he asked a pretty basic question: Why isn’t he in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

To which I respond with a pretty basic answer: Because he was a return specialist.

That’s not a knock on Mitchell. It’s a conclusion based on the history of the Hall’s board of selectors. Over the first 50 years, it put exactly one specialist (kicker Jan Stenerud) in Canton. Then voters relented, warming up to punter Ray Guy and kicker Morten Anderson, and elected them within four years of each other.

But that’s it, folks. Three specialists in 57 years of voting, and don’t ask me why. Voters simply seem blind to special teams.

It took them 23 years and eight tries as a finalist to elect Guy, yet he was named to the league’s 75th anniversary team … by the same board of selectors that kept him waiting. It took them five years to elect Andersen despite a resume that included two first-team all-decade choices and career totals that made him the NFL’s all-time leading scorer before Adam Vinatieri passed him last season.

So it’s no wonder that voters haven’t cozied up to Mitchell.

Yet all the guy did was amass more all-purpose yards than everyone in NFL history outside of Jerry Rice and join Jim Brown as the only two people to lead the league in combined yards four seasons. Rice and Brown were first-ballot Hall-of-Fame choices. But Brian Mitchell? He not only hasn’t been a finalist; he’s never been a semifinalist … and that says more about voters than it does the candidate.

“People act as if special teams aren’t important,” Mitchell said on a November, 2016, Talk of Fame Network broadcast. “But every coach in every locker room in a Sunday, Monday, Thursday … whenever the game is … is discussing special teams. So it’s very important.”

Tell that to the Hall’s voters.

They haven’t acted on Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, the all-decade return specialist for the 1970s and 1980s, and they haven’t acted on former Buffalo standout Steve Tasker, whom Hall-of-Fame GM Bill Polian for years has promoted for Canton. The logic, of course, is that specialists sometimes are on the field for a handful of plays, therefore minimizing their importance to their teams.

OK, fine. But try winning a game without them.

The point is: Brian Mitchell wasn’t just an accomplished returner; he was an exceptional one … and isn’t that what the Pro Football Hall of Fame is supposed to be about?

He was a three-time All-Pro and considered so valuable (invaluable?) to the Washington Redskins that they named him to their Ring of Honor. He was also durable, missing only one game … one … in 14 seasons with the Redskins, Philadelphia and New York Giants – and that happened in his first year as a pro. Plus, he was versatile, gaining 4,303 yards and scoring 16 times as a receiver and running back and serving as an emergency quarterback when the situation warranted it.

But don’t stop there. He was part of a Super Bowl champion (the 1991 Redskins) and leads the league in nearly every playoff kick and punt-return category there is. In short, he checks all the boxes. Yet he’s never considered for Canton, and he wonders why.

Frankly, so do I.

“I know that special teams don’t get a lot of respect,” Mitchell said on the Talk of Fame Network. “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?”

Good question.

Comments (6)
No. 1-3
brian wolf
brian wolf

Great article, because like Sproles, Mason, Smith and other great returners, Mitchell has yardage from scrimmage as well.

The bottom line is, except for maybe Steve Tasker, who should have more of a Wide Receiver...I believe that any other special teamers in the HOF, need to be players who were mostly starters on offence or defence, or at least played ALOT, on substitution packages. Lemar Parrish and Abe Woodson are great examples. Great defensive players, who excelled at special teams. Devin Hester or Desmond Howard are not, though they were great scoring return TDs...They were failed starters as Receivers or DB's. Even Bill Bates played alot of nickel/dime LB or Safety...

Everybody knows Vinatieri will be another kicker voted in, but who else ? Lechler as a punter ? Gary Anderson, despite the 99 NFC Championship Game miss ?

When I used to watch Mitchell for Wash or Phil, I kept wondering why he wasn't used more on offence ? Sproles all purpose yardage should put him in the Hall as well. Then there is Herschel Walker....

rewing84
rewing84

little nitpicking eh brian

Jay Casey
Jay Casey

All great insight by Clark and Brian. In somewhat the same spirit, let's step back for an even broader perspective on a player -- Herschel Walker (picking up where Brian left off)..

He certainly made an impact on the history pro football -- a key to launching one league and then making an impacts several ways with the NFL. He contributed at a high level as a KOR and even more as a running back (rushing and receiving), and was still on coverage teams well into his 30s.

Mitchell was easily the best as KOR/PR, while Walker added much more than Mitchell as as runner, receiver and was also a force as a KOR and even in coverage. HW's career included 8,225 yards rushing and 512 receptions for 4,859 yards as part of 18,168 all purpose production. In APY he led the league twice and was in the top 10 seven times.

Mitchell was a force and indeed a worthy HOF candidate. His 23,330 all purpose yards includes 14,014 from kickoff returns, 1967 yards rushing and 255 catches for 2,336 touchdowns.

Walker scored 84 touchdowns, Mitchell 29.

That said, this goes beyond parsing statistics, although they are considerable all around. Decades from now, the phenomenal life story or Herschel Walker's dramatic impact on pro football needs be represented by his bust in the HOF. It is a story that must survive in perpetuity.

Hell, who else can do 1,500 push-ups a day after he is 50 years old? Thanks, great forum for discussion.