November 15, 2009
Bobby Mitchell played the first four seasons of his brilliant 11-year career as a halfback for the Cleveland Browns. During that time, while recognized for his speed in the open field, he typically played in the shadow of Jim Brown. But in one game in his second season, it was Mitchell outgaining Brown and very nearly breaking the great fullback’s single game rushing record.
On November 15, 1959 the Browns (5-2) played the Redskins (3-4) at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Mitchell had his biggest run of the day in the first quarter as he scored a 90-yard touchdown (the longest run from scrimmage in the NFL in ’59). While the Redskins managed to keep it close thanks to scoring runs by HB Dick James and FB John Olszewski that tied the score at 14-14 at the half, it was all Browns the rest of the way. Mitchell had scoring runs of five yards in the third quarter and 23 yards in the fourth as Cleveland cruised to a 31-17 win. Most significantly, Mitchell gained a total of 232 yards rushing – just five yards short of Jim Brown’s then-league record – on only 14 carries (a 16.6-yard average gain).
Mitchell’s performance overshadowed a 190-yard rushing day for Washington’s Olszewski (on 18 attempts with a long gain of 65 yards). Brown had just 40 yards on 16 carries, his lowest total of the year, which broke a string of four straight 100-yard games (he would be back over 100 in the next two games, and three of the last four).
Perhaps no game better pointed out the ability of the Brown/Mitchell tandem to confound opposing defenses. While Brown was clearly the dominant running back of his era (and arguably the greatest of all time), Mitchell could cause opposing teams to pay a price if they keyed too heavily on him. In 1959, the two combined for over 2000 yards (2072) and 19 TDs on the ground alone (Mitchell had four more scores on pass receptions plus one on a punt return). Together they averaged 4.9 yards per carry.
Individually, it was Jim Brown who led the NFL in rushing for the third consecutive season with 1329 yards on 290 attempts, with a 4.6 average gain and 14 touchdowns. Mitchell ranked fifth with his 743 yards on 131 carries for a 5.7-yard average gain and four TDs.
Not surprisingly, high average gains were typical of Mitchell during his years as a running back. Over the course of his four seasons in Cleveland, he accumulated 2297 yards on 423 carries for a 5.4-yard average. In spite of the relatively low number of rushing attempts (the 131 in ’59 were his career high), he never had less than 500 yards on the ground in any of those seasons.
Mitchell also caught 35 passes for 351 yards out of the backfield in 1959; not surprisingly, for a player who would be converted to flanker in Washington with great success, he was an excellent receiver from the halfback position. By way of comparison, Brown caught 24 passes for 190 yards - while he also was a good receiver out of the backfield, he wasn’t thrown to as often, and Head Coach Paul Brown often liked to use him as a decoy in passing situations.
Despite being the NFL’s best rushing team, the Browns ended up with a 7-5 record, tied for second in the Eastern Conference and three games behind the Giants. After rising to 6-2 with the win over the Redskins, they lost their next three games to fall out of contention. Problems with the passing attack and defense negated the ground gaining advantage. As to Washington, they sank to 3-9 for the year, in fifth place in the East.