Energized Mitchell supplies hot shot

KEN ROSENTHAL

January 03, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

MINNEAPOLIS -- Joe Gibbs smiled as he crossed paths with Brian Mitchell in the interview room. "I wasn't real smart, not playing you all this time," the Redskins coach said to his third-string running back. "You made me look bad."

That dummy Gibbs, how did he ever get to be 16-4 in the playoffs? Mitchell normally plays only on special teams, but yesterday he gained 209 all-purpose yards in the Redskins' 24-7 playoff victory over Minnesota.

He ran. He caught. He returned.

He came. He saw. He conquered.

The beat-up Redskins needed a recharging, and Mitchell arrived at the Metrodome holding jumper cables. Gibbs owns a NASCAR team, right? Well, he should let Mitchell fix the Redskins' battery more often.

Mitchell, 24, is a regular Eveready, always willing, always alert. He had no idea he'd play so much yesterday, even with running back Ricky Ervins injured. But suddenly, backfield coach Don Breaux was calling his name, and Mitchell could hear the words of his late father ringing in his ears.

"You're a Mitchell," Blanche Mitchell would tell the youngest of his seven children. "You can do anything."

And so Brian did. His 54-yard punt return ignited the Redskins when they trailed 7-3 at the start of the second quarter. His 38-yard run off a fake punt extended a drive that he completed with an 8-yard touchdown run to give the Redskins a 17-7 halftime lead.

Blanche Mitchell would have been proud. He spent 20 years in the Army, and when he talked, Brian listened. "Be prepared, no matter what," was one of his father's favorite sayings. A year after his death, Brian regards such advice as the gospel.

It showed yesterday, when he gained 109 yards on 16 carries after running the ball only six times all season. Ervins could not play because of a sprained ankle. Earnest Byner gained only 26 yards on his first 14 carries. Without Mitchell, the Redskins would have had no running game at all.

Just two weeks ago, he fumbled twice in a 17-13 loss to Philadelphia, but as Gibbs said, "It's hard to get mad at him." The 5-foot-10, 209-pound Mitchell is an intense practice player, and he carries a heavy load, working at running back, quarterback and wide receiver.

At Southwestern Louisiana, he became the first quarterback in NCAA history to throw for 5,000 yards and run for 3,000. He's athletic enough to scramble like Randall Cunningham for the Redskins' scout team, intelligent enough to memorize all the plays at his different positions.

How many football players use their athletic scholarships to pay for college so they can keep a Dow Chemical grant for spending money? Mitchell did, starting off at Southwestern Louisiana as a chemical engineering major before switching to business management.

"This guy came off the field as a rookie telling me what the other team was doing," special teams coach Wayne Sevier said of the former fifth-round draft pick. "I'd say, 'OK, let's check the films and see if he's right.' And he was."

So, when Sevier ordered the fake punt yesterday, he felt comfortable knowing Mitchell could call off the play at the line of scrimmage. But, on fourth-and-three at the Redskins 44, Mitchell saw the Vikings were set up for a return. He took the snap, and took off.

It was the third time in the past two seasons Mitchell has executed such a fake, but his dream is to get off special teams and become the Redskins' No. 1 back. That, ultimately, is why he works so diligently at practice, even though in three seasons he has carried the ball just 24 times.

"When you're not getting a chance to run the ball, it's human nature to think, 'I'm not going to work hard, I'm not going to study hard,' " Mitchell said. "That's what most people would do, but I don't. The best way to leave your mark is by being prepared."

Still, his busiest game at running back before yesterday was in 1990, when he carried seven times for 36 yards against Miami. His best individual performances were at Southwestern Louisiana, where he could recall two games where he ran and passed for over 400 yards.

Now he has a game ball, which he will send to his mother, Sophonia, in Louisiana. He's the Redskins' hero of the hour, but chances are, he'll be back at quarterback for the scout team this week, doing his best imitation of San Francisco's Steve Young.

Mitchell smiled at the challenge.

"I'll just have to start throwing with my left hand," he said.

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