September 11, 2010

1994: Brian Mitchell’s 225 Yards in Kick Returns Help Redskins Down Saints

Over the course of his 14-year NFL career, RB Brian Mitchell established himself as the most productive kick returner in pro football history. One game that showcased his abilities was on September 11, 1994 as the Washington Redskins faced the New Orleans Saints at the Louisiana Superdome.

The Redskins, just three years after a Super Bowl triumph, had fallen on hard times since the departure of Head Coach Joe Gibbs following the 1992 season. The team had dropped to 4-12 in ’93 under Richie Petitbon and, under new Head Coach Norv Turner, lost the season opening game the previous week to Seattle by a 28-7 score.

The Saints, 8-8 the previous year under Head Coach Jim Mora, had also lost their first game. They received the opening kickoff and drove 66 yards in 14 plays capped by a 29-yard Morten Andersen field goal. Mitchell returned the ensuing kickoff 31 yards to launch Washington’s first possession. The Redskins were forced to punt after five plays but got a break when CB Tyrone Legette of the Saints muffed the kick and LB Lamar Hollinquest recovered for Washington at the New Orleans 14 yard line. The Redskins capitalized three plays later when QB John Friesz completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to WR Henry Ellard.

New Orleans didn’t move the ball on its next possession and punted. Mitchell received the kick at his 26 yard line and returned it 74 yards for a TD and the Redskins were up 14-3.

After another brief possession, the Saints punted from the Washington 46. Tommy Barnhardt’s short, 27-yard kick provided no opportunity for another long return as Mitchell called for the fair catch at the 19. A long drive by the Redskins was for naught when they were unable to punch in from the one yard line and turned the ball over on downs. Again the Saints had to punt, this time a 48-yard boot by Barnhardt that Mitchell returned 16 yards.

Neither team was able to move the ball effectively for the remainder of the half, which ended with Andersen coming up short on a 53-yard field goal attempt for the Saints. However, Mitchell got the second half off to a rousing start with an 86-yard kickoff return to the New Orleans 15, where he was caught from behind by CB Tyrone Hughes (a good kick returner in his own right).

The Redskins made good use of the excellent field position as Friesz threw for a one-yard TD pass to RB Cedric Smith and a 21-3 lead. The Saints fought back, driving 74 yards in eight plays capped by a 17-yard touchdown pass from QB Jim Everett to WR Michael Haynes. The attempted two-point conversion failed.

Mitchell returned his third kickoff of the game for 21 yards. During the series that followed, he ran five yards for a first down and Washington went on to score another TD as Friesz again connected with Ellard, this time for 41 yards. After CB Tom Carter intercepted an Everett pass, the Redskins scored once again early in the fourth quarter when Chip Lohmiller booted a 31-yard field goal.

It was the turn of Tyrone Hughes to make a big return when he brought the ensuing kickoff back 43 yards to near midfield. However, while the Saints drove into Washington territory, they fumbled the ball away. Again the Redskins made the most of the break and eight plays later Friesz threw his third scoring pass of the game, this time to WR Desmond Howard for 31 yards and a 38-9 lead.

New Orleans was able to score two touchdowns, on a four-yard pass from Everett to WR Torrance Small (followed by a successful two-point conversion) and three-yard run by FB Brad Muster, but it only served to make the final tally a bit more respectable. Washington came away with a 38-24 win.

Brian Mitchell gained a total of 225 yards on kick returns (three kickoffs for 138 yards and two punts for 87 yards). On offense, he contributed a further 27 yards on seven carries for an overall 252 yards.

Mitchell’s returns, combined with New Orleans turnovers, were a major factor in Washington’s win. The Saints outgained the Redskins, 408 to 343 yards, as Jim Everett passed for 376 yards in trying to come from behind, completing 31 of 46 passes with two touchdowns and an interception. New Orleans wasn’t able to run the ball, gaining just 28 yards on 15 carries. Leading receivers for the Saints were Michael Haynes, with 6 catches for 87 yards and a TD, and WR Quinn Early, who had 5 receptions for 83 yards.

RB Reggie Brooks led the ground game for the Redskins by gaining 92 yards on 32 carries. John Friesz completed 15 of 22 passes for 195 yards, but with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Henry Ellard accounted for two of the scores while catching three passes for 72 yards.

In the end, it was not a particularly noteworthy season for either team. The Redskins won just twice more to finish at 3-13 and last in the NFC East – the club’s worst showing since 1961. New Orleans came in second in the NFC West with a 7-9 tally.

Brian Mitchell was one of the few bright spots for Washington as he led the NFL in all-purpose yards (2477, his career high), punt returning (14.1 avg., also a career high), combined kick returns (90), and combined kick return yardage (a then-NFL record 1930). He scored two touchdowns on punt returns and his 25.5 kickoff return average ranked fifth in the NFC. The league-leading all-purpose yardage total broke down as 1478 on 58 kickoff returns, 452 on 32 punt returns, 311 on 78 rushes, and 236 from 26 pass receptions.

It was an outstanding season, but not unusually so, for the fifth-year pro out of Southwestern Louisiana. Mitchell would end up returning more kickoffs (607) for more yards (14,014) than any other NFL player, averaging 23.1 yards per return and scoring four touchdowns. Likewise as a punt returner, he set lifetime standards for returns (463) and yardage (4999) and was second in TDs (9) while averaging 10.8 yards. Mitchell gained a total of 23,316 all-purpose yards over the course of 14 seasons with three teams, of which 19,013 came on kick returns. His 13 touchdowns on combined returns set yet another league career record. While not the fastest of all kick returners by any means, he returned kicks with a skill and savvy that made him consistently productive.