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Is B-Banks the next B-Mitch?

It is done.

Jim Gehman

Camp Fodder
Jul 19, 2009
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A bright spot of Washington’s season thus far has been the kick- and punt-returns of undrafted rookie Brandon Banks. Against the Lions on Oct. 31, he had five punt returns and six kickoff returns, and set a team record by totaling 271 return yards, which includes a 96-yard kickoff return for his first career touchdown.

However, because a particular late-game substitution garnered much of the attention during Mike Shanahan’s postgame press conference, some of those who follow the Redskins may have missed that the coach said, “[Banks] was off the charts. If you weren't impressed with him, then you don't enjoy football.”

A former return specialist for the Redskins, Brian Mitchell, was also off the charts and impressed many who enjoy football. I hope a couple anecdotes about B-Mitch which are included in my book about the team – “Then Gibbs Said to Riggins…” bring back some fond burgundy-and-gold memories.

The More You Can Do…

As Washington’s 1990 preseason opened against Atlanta on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill on August 11, head coach Joe Gibbs barely had enough time to adjust the headset over his hat when he spotted a rookie who would become his return specialist.

Brian Mitchell, a quarterback from Southwestern Louisiana who was drafted in the fifth round, was being converted to running back and more specifically into a kickoff and punt returner. He caught the opening kickoff from the Falcons and returned the ball 92 yards for a touchdown.

The rookie’s celebration, however, was fleeting. The time that it took Mitchell to race the ball nearly the entire length of the field was roughly how long he had to feel confident that that return effort secured him a spot on the Redskins’ roster. “Well, I was thinking that it did,” Mitchell laughed. “All the players when I came to the sideline were saying that and [special-teams coach] Wayne Sevier basically told me I hadn’t done a damn thing yet. Get on the football field, I was on the kickoff team, and I’d better be able to tackle.”

Throughout training camp, Mitchell, like most every rookie, had to try to impress his coaches. But he had to do so with the added burden of playing at an unfamiliar position. “I was a little nervous because I had played quarterback for nine years [in high school and college] and I always had the mindset that return guys were crazy. It’s a tough job I never thought would be my job. But I always tell people having that success that early probably made me want to do it and begin to work more at it. Because if I didn’t have that success, I probably would have left and went to Canada and try to play quarterback.”

As the regular season was set to open, Mitchell could shelve any thoughts about clearing customs at the border because he had earned a place on the team and was a Redskin.

Contributing almost entirely on special teams through the first eight games, while Washington practiced for its November 12 meeting with the Eagles in Philadelphia, Mitchell took a step back into his past and went under center as a quarterback. “Going into that game, [the starting quarterback Mark] Rypien was already hurt, and we had Stan Humphries and Jeff Rutledge [as backups]. Both of those guys got hurt in the game,” said Mitchell. “And that week they had just happened to give me a shortened version of the game plan and told me to be prepared if something was to happen to them. And it just so happened [in] that game that the four people that I backed up, those two at quarterback, and Walter Stanley and Joe Howard Johnson at punt return, all four of them got hurt!”

And so, while Murphy’s Law dictated Mitchell’s offensive debut in the NFL, it occurred during a nationally televised Monday Night Football broadcast, no less. “When I walked into the huddle, I basically told them that on this first play I’m going to do what I always did in college, I’m going to roll out and act like I’m going to pass and I’m going to run the football,” said Mitchell, who as an option quarterback in college, passed for 1,966 yards and rushed for 1,311 yards during his senior season. “They were very supportive. It was a game where we were having a tough time. I think nine total people got hurt that day. So we were just thinking, I guess, let’s try and get though this game and see what we can do. I think the next person in line [to play quarterback] was Russ Grimm.”

While Grimm stayed put at right guard, Mitchell finished the 28-14 loss as Washington’s quarterback. In his only series, he completed three passes for 40 yards, had two rushes for 11 yards, and scored on a run from the 1-yard line. He also led the Redskins with 12 hits on special teams.

Mitchell’s Super in the Dome

Brian Mitchell provided an excellent reason why home cooking should not be underestimated when the Redskins traveled to his native Louisiana on September 11, 1994, to play against the New Orleans Saints in the Superdome. “I told guys, 'You know, I’ve had a lot of success in that stadium.’ When I was in college [at Southwestern Louisiana], I had a lot of success there,” Mitchell said. “And going into the game and having the blocking that we had, our special teams, we took pride in trying to go out there and give our team a boost. It just happened for us there. I guess some stadiums are just good for people. Whenever I played in New Orleans or I played in Philadelphia, I just had a knack or had a feeling that something good was going to happen, and it did that day.”

Did it ever! First he returned a punt 74 yards for a touchdown. And later in the game, he had an 86-yard kickoff return that set up another touchdown that helped Washington beat New Orleans, 38-24.

On those two and all of his returns, there was a plan. “I tried to get right back [down the field] as fast as I could. I didn’t want to have many wasted movements,” said Mitchell, who gained 225 all-purpose yards against the Saints and was named the NFC Special-Teams Player of the Week. “I didn’t want to go side to side, I was trying to catch the ball and immediately get back into it, which gave me the advantage. If I come back into the coverage team, and they start breaking down, I know that my blockers have a chance of blocking them.

“If it was called a right return, a left return, or a middle return, I stuck to that return because that in turn would limit the amount of penalties you’re going to get. And also, your guys will know where you’re always going to be, you knew where they were going to be [and because of that] you had a more successful return game.”

Mitchell enjoyed a successful career as a returner for the Redskins. The team’s all-time leader with 317 punt returns for 3,476 yards, he returned seven for touchdowns. He also holds Washington’s all-time kick-return records with 421 returns for 9,586 yards.

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