December 15, 2017

Tim Brown and Brian Mitchell: All-Purpose Snubs?

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.

What gives?

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.

College Football’s Triple Crown Winners

Say the sports phrase, “Triple Crown” and fans automatically think of horse racing or a hitter in baseball leading his respective league in home runs, RBI and batting average.

When a back has an outstanding season, he will lead the country in rushing and scoring. And if his team needs him to catch a pass out of the backfield or return kicks, he adds value to the team by increasing his overall production.  So when a player compiles statistics in rushing, receiving and return yards, they are totaled and listed under “All-Purpose Yards.”

While there is no official Triple Crown in college football, leading the country in rushing, scoring and all-purpose yards in the same season gives the player the unofficial statistics title of being a Triple Crown winner. College football statistics were first compiled—officially—in 1937.  Since that time, only 13 college football players have earned this Triple Crown.  It should be mentioned that just because a player achieves such a rare accomplishment, it does not guarantee a Heisman Trophy or even achieving All-American honors.

It’s only fitting that the first player to accomplish this feat would coincide with the first year of official stats, 1937.  Byron “Whizzer” White, led the 17th ranked—in the AP Poll—Colorado Buffaloes and the nation in rushing yards (1121), scoring (122) and all-purpose yards per game (246.3)—this mark would be the standard for 51 seasons before falling to the 12th player to claim the three-stat titles, Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders in 1988.

The last player to win the College Football Triple Crown came from White’s alma mater, Colorado, as Rashaan Salaam captured the title in 1994. The two former CU Buffs winners join a pair of New Mexico State backs as the only sets of winners from the same school. Former New Mexico State backs, Pervis Atkins and Jim Pilot, in 1959 and 1961, respectively, would claim this distinction as well.

After White’s Triple Crown, a span of 14 years would go by before the next player would accomplish this impressive milestone, San Francisco’s Ollie Matson in 1951.  In the next 10 years, four more players would claim the honor, including the first back-to-back winners, Dick Bass (1958) and Atkins.  After Pilot accomplished it in 1961, it would be another 10 seasons before college football would have a player as its next three-stat leader.

In 1971, a player out of the Ivy League would join the list as Cornell’s Ed Marinaro would lead all major college players in rushing, scoring and all-purpose yardage.  He was also the first of three backs on the list to average over 200 yards rushing per game.

Then, starting with Tony Dorsett in 1976 and through the 1994 season, six players earned this rare accomplishment.  In 1977, Texas back Earl Campbell would follow Dorsett and make them only the second set of players to attain the milestone in consecutive seasons.

Next up was Marcus Allen, the lone running back from “Tailback U” (USC) to have a Triple Crown season, in 1981 and Ohio State’s Keith Byars in 1984. After Allen’s and Byars’ accomplishments, college football would have to wait four seasons to see another Triple Crown—but it was well worth the wait.

After playing as a backup for his first two seasons at Oklahoma State, Barry Sanders exploded on the college football scene in 1988; his lone season as the featured back.  Sanders would set the standard in all three categories that year.  These marks have yet to be eclipsed—and more than likely won’t be for some time.  He ran for 2,628 yards—238.9 per game, scored 234 points—21.3 a game and his all-purpose yardage totaled 3,250 yards—averaging 295.5 per game.  Simply an incredible and historic season!

While each player was heavily depended on by their teams, he wasn’t always as noted nationally.  Only nine of the thirteen players would earn All-American laurels and just eight players finished in the top four in the balloting for the Heisman Trophy—five would win college football’s top individual player of the year award.  Furthermore, just over half, seven, would play for a team that would garner a spot in the final AP poll.  Of the seven, just one, Pittsburgh’s Dorsett, in 1976, played for a National Champion.

Salaam’s Triple Crown season came in 1994—the last heading into the 2011 season—becoming the fifth junior to accomplish this rare feat.  Rounding out by classes, the senior class has had six winners and a pair of sophomores made the list, Art Luppino in 1954 and Pilot in 1961.  A freshman has yet to accomplish a milestone season.

Here is a listing of each player and their statistics from their Triple Crown season.

1937 Byron “Whizzer” White, Colorado
Rushing Yards: 1121
All-Purpose Yards: 246.3
Total Points: 122
AA-HT-AP: Y-2-14
1951 Ollie Matson, San Francisco
Rushing Yards: 1556
All-Purpose Yards: 226.3
Total Points: 126
AA-HT-AP: Y-N-17
1954 Art Luppino, Arizona
Rushing Yards: 1359
All-Purpose Yards: 219.3
Total Points: 166
1958 Dick Bass, Pacific
Rushing Yards: 1361
All-Purpose Yards: 187.8
Total Points: 116
1959 Pervis Atkins, New Mexico State
Rushing Yards: 1556
All-Purpose Yards: 180.0
Total Points: 107
1961 Jim Pilot, New Mexico State
Rushing Yards: 1278
All-Purpose Yards: 160.6
Total Points: 138
1971 Ed Marinaro, Cornell
Rushing Yards: 209.0
All-Purpose Yards: 214.7
Points per Game: 16.4
1976 Tony Dorsett, Pittsburgh
Rushing Yards: 177.1
All-Purpose Yards: 183.7
Points per Game: 12.2
AA-HT-AP: Y-1-1
1977 Earl Campbell, Texas
Rushing Yards: 158.5
All-Purpose Yards: 168.6
Points per Game: 10.4
AA-HT-AP: Y-1-4
1981 Marcus Allen, USC
Rushing Yards: 212.9
All-Purpose Yards: 232.6
Points per Game: 12.5
AA-HT-AP: Y-1-14
1984 Keith Byars, Ohio State
Rushing Yards: 150.5
All-Purpose Yards: 207.6
Points per Game: 13.1
AA-HT-AP: Y-2-14
1988 Barry Sanders, Oklahoma State
Rushing Yards: 238.9
All-Purpose Yards: 295.5
Points per Game: 21.3
AA-HT-AP: Y-1-11
1994 Rashaan Salaam, Colorado
Rushing Yards: 186.8
All-Purpose Yards: 213.6
Points per Game: 13.1
AA-HT-AP: Y-1-3

AA-Consensus All-America Selection
HT-Rank in Heisman Trophy Balloting
AP-Team’s Final AP Ranking
Y-Yes; N-No; NR-Not Ranked

From 1937-69, highest totals was declared the winner while All-Purpose Yards has always been based on Per Game Average; since 1970 all NCAA statistical leaders.

Tex Noel is the Executive Director of the Intercollegiate Football Researchers Association.