ASHBURN, Va. -- Coach Joe Gibbs was a bit wary when bubbly Brian Mitchell arrived at his first Washington Redskins training camp three years ago.
"That first year, what scared me is that he's kind of a little bit of a free spirit. I kind of jumped him a couple of times because he left on weekends when he should have stayed there during the season. I was concerned about his off-season. I said, 'if you're not a worker, you're going to have a tough time sticking up there,' " Gibbs said.
From that rocky beginning, Mitchell not only survived. He went on to become one of Gibbs' favorite players.
It turned out Gibbs didn't have to worry about Mitchell being quick to leave. The native of Plaquemine, La., said he was just homesick as a rookie and went home at the first opportunity.
When it came to working in the offseason, Mitchell set a standard.
"He's one of our best workers. That first offseason, I was shocked. He was in there every time I turned around. He's a great worker," Gibbs said.
Mitchell said he didn't need Gibbs to warn him about working. He said he's always had a good work ethic.
"I didn't loaf in college [SW Louisiana] so why should I loaf here?" he said.
He also turned out to be patient. A running quarterback in college, he proved to be such a good kick and punt returner that Gibbs has been reluctant to try him at running back.
ZTC "He's the first guy who's run punts back here in five years that we haven't carried off on a stretcher. That's a tough assignment. Those guys aren't born every day. I learned that a long time ago. There's very few of those guys who come along because they get hurt and they can't do it," Gibbs said.
The coach even overlooked the fact that he dropped a punt and a kickoff against the Philadelphia Eagles three weeks ago to help cost the Redskins the game. There's usually a word to describe Redskins who fumble: ex-Redskins. Gibbs simply doesn't tolerate fumbling.
In Mitchell's case, Gibbs overlooked those miscues.
"It's hard to get mad at a guy you see practice that hard. It'd be like getting mad at your kid if he practices his guts out on the piano, but he's not very good. He's got a great attitude," he said.
Of the drops against the Eagles, Mitchell said, "My concentration level was down in that game. I was trying too hard. Last week, I watched the ball in. That's all I have to do every play."
Mitchell has been so valuable as a kick returner that he didn't even get much work at running back in the exhibition games. Gibbs didn't want to wear him down.
But last Saturday in Minneapolis, Mitchell finally got his chance. With Ricky Ervins sidelined with a sprained ankle and with Earnest Byner coming back from a sprained back and not ready to handle the whole load, Mitchell was called on to carry the Redskins.
Mitchell was more than up to the task. He wound up with 209 all-purpose yards in the 24-7 victory over the Vikings. He ran for 109 yards in 16 carries including 38 yards on a fake punt and added 54 yards on a kickoff return.
"It gave me a lot of confidence. That game gave me a little more power to get into the backfield. I think I went to camp as a special teams guy, and I accepted that. You can't take anything away from Earnest and Ricky, but I still want to get in there. I'm going to work as hard as I can until I get the chance where I'm the full-time person. That's my goal," he said.
"I'd say he made me look bad," Gibbs said cheerfully. "I should have been playing him more at running back. He loves what he's doing. He goes out and practices and yells and screams at guys. He tries to hit guys, knocks them down. He covers kickoffs, runs back punts and never complains about not running the football."
Mitchell said the players have nicknamed him "Billy Bad A because he runs into his teammates at times and starts scuffles just to keep things from getting boring.
"That picks everybody else up if you can just make it fun," he said.
Mitchell's performance last week probably means he'll get more of a shot next year.
There's no doubt he'll get more of a shot tomorrow.
When the Redskins play the San Francisco 49ers at Candlestick Park in a second-round playoff game, Mitchell figures to play a critical role for the Redskins.
They probably could have edged the Vikings without Mitchell because Sean Salisbury was so ineffective at quarterback. It'll .. be a different story tomorrow when quarterback Steve Young will come in with the high-octane 49ers offense against a beat up Redskins secondary.
The Redskins figure the best way to stop Young is to keep him on the sidelines.
Because Ervins is still ailing, although he saw some work in practice yesterday, the Redskins will try to control the ball with Byner and Mitchell. They'd also be happy to have Mitchell give them good field position by breaking a punt or a kickoff.
The 49ers certainly took notice of him when they looked at the videotape of the Vikings game.
San Francisco linebacker Antonio Goss said they'd prepare for Mitchell the way they prepare for Deion Sanders.
Mitchell doesn't know how much action he'll see, but says he'll be ready.
"If I get one play or 20 plays, they'll be positive plays."
One thing he won't do is get up tight. He's still a free spirit.
"If you're 100 percent serious and don't have any loose bones, you're going to make mistakes because you're trying too hard. I like to have fun on the field. I'm always talking to the other people on other teams. I'm always laughing and saying things," he said.
NOTES: CB Darrell Green saw some action in practice yesterday, and the Redskins hope he can play against the 49ers, but they're still not sure how much action he'll see. . . . DT Eric Williams worked again and is likely to be activated for the game.