The NFL’s top ten list in career all-purpose yards contains eight Hall of Famers. The two who are not enshrined in Canton are Tim Brown, who is fifth on the list, and Brian Mitchell, who is second.
Brown compiled 19,679 all-purpose yards during 16 seasons with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders and one final season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before retiring after the 2004 season. He was a receiver and a kick returner and made the Pro Bowl nine times. He is tied for 104th on Pro Football-Reference’s Career Approximate Value leaders list ahead of Hall of Famers Steve Largent, Marcus Allen, Jim Kelly, Franco Harris, Frank Gifford and Curtis Martin.
He played in one Super Bowl, with the Raiders after the 2002 season, and lost.
He likes cars.
Brian Mitchell is second on the list with an eye-popping 23,316 all-purpose yards, just 230 behind the all-time leader, Jerry Rice, yet Mitchell played in only 223 career games. Rice played in 303.
Mitchell returned kicks, ran the ball, caught passes and frustrated the heck out of other teams while playing for the Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and New York Giants from 1990 to 2003. He had 13 career returns for scores and 29 career TDs in all.
Mitchell even, in his final year, threw a touchdown pass.
He helped the Redskins win Super Bowl XXVI.
Should he get to wear a yellow blazer in August?
In the NFL all-purpose yardage guys are treated like solid utility players in baseball. Coaches love them, fans appreciate them, but the only girl who will dance with them picks her nose and wears falsies.
This season the league’s leader in all-purpose yards is Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, a great player who could one day be in Canton. But look back at the all-purpose leaders over the past few years and you find, counting backwards, Randall Cobb, Darren Sproles, Danny Amendola, Fred Jackson, Leon Washington and Josh Cribbs. You have to go back to 2006 to find a genuine “superstar,” when Steven Jackson took the crown.
Numbers (don’t tell anyone) can sometimes call for further explanation. Mitchell led the season all-purpose yardage list four times in the 90s but back in that era some of the other leaders included Marshall Faulk, Barry Sanders, Thurman Thomas and Eric Dickerson. Running backs used to be bigger stars and carry a greater load so they ate up more of the yards. Now, in the pass-happy NFL, guys like McCoy harken back to Faulk and Thomas, players who were just as much of a threat catching as running and it would appear the future of the game belongs to those who do both.
But what about returning?
The NFL has been watering down kick and punt returns by trying to make them safer and there has even been talk of getting rid of them. Players like Chicago Bears specialist Devin Hester, who holds the league record for career kick return TDs, could be a vanishing breed. There has been serious talk, at least in Chicago, that Hester will one day be in the Hall of Fame. He has 33 career touchdowns, 19 of them on returns. Tim Brown had 105 career scores.
It’s easy to just add up numbers and make proclamations. That’s why we’re doing it. But don’t all-purpose guys define what football really is? Isn’t the game at its most fun when guys strap on the helmet for as many plays as possible?
Certainly, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson would have impressive return yardage if the Vikes were crazy enough to let him return kicks. Ditto, years ago, for Detroit Lions Hall of Famer Barry Sanders and, of course, Jerry Rice. So maybe Brown and Mitchell’s numbers don’t mean they were so great but just, perhaps, a little more expendable.
But was Walter Payton expendable?
The Bears Hall of Famer retired after the 1987 season as the league’s all-time leading rusher and has since been surpassed by Emmitt Smith, but Payton is third, one spot ahead of Smith, on the career APY list. This is, in part, because Payton had 539 career yards as a kick returner, with nearly all of them coming in his rookie year of 1975.
Payton also threw eight career touchdown passes. That’s right; eight TD passes as a running back. That’s more than Emmitt (1), Jim Brown (3), Barry Sanders (0), Tony Dorsett (0), Dickerson (1) and O.J. Simpson (1) combined.
We have taken the liberty of omitting Raiders and Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame running back Marcus Allen from this list because he, inconveniently from our point of view, had six career TD passes. Not as many as Walter, but in his territory.
In 1983 Payton had three TD passes, so did Allen. They were ballers who lined up and got it done. Imagine them on a team with Tim Brown and Brian Mitchell. Think of a sport worried about concussions and lawsuits coming up with ways to showcase athleticism, versatility and creativity over violence. It’s football with a rugby/basketball/hockey future. No more 300 pounders and a lot fewer broken bones. A game of all-purpose players catching, running, passing and sprinting.
A backyard league of legends.