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?”