June 27, 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.

Enter Dent

Richard Dent was the Pontiac of football players: a little flashy, very reliable and capable of coolness along with handfuls of greatness.

Dent was not a Cadillac like Dan Hampton or a Hummer like Reggie White or a likely-stolen Porsche like Lawrence Taylor. Pontiacs normally don’t make the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  However, when Oldsmobiles like Andre Tippett, Fred Dean and Rickey Jackson start getting in, then you hop in the Sunfire, Trans-Am, or GTO and drive to Canton, Ohio wearing your #95 jersey and welcome in “The Colonel.”

Dent became the fourth player from those great Chicago Bears teams of the 1980s to be enshrined at Canton; joining Hampton, Walter Payton and Mike Singletary.  The coach of that Bears team, Mike Ditka, is also in the Hall, but as a player.

Payton was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.  He was likely the best all-around running back, and perhaps the most gracious gentleman, in NFL history.  It’s still wounding that he’s gone.

Like Dent, Hampton didn’t get in until several years after first eligible; as he seemed to be overshadowed by other players and personalities from those Bears teams.  But Hampton was the best player on those Bears defenses and probably the NFL’s best overall defensive lineman of the 1980s.  It’s not all about sacks.  It’s also about knocking down passes, chasing guys downfield and treating every play like it’s your last with love, death, wealth and happiness riding on the outcome.  How often do you see defensive linemen make tackles in the secondary?  Dan Hampton did that.

Hampton got in the Hall four years after Singletary, who was the most overrated player on those Bears teams and possibly Chicago’s third best linebacker in 1985.  Singletary was great and the Bears wouldn’t have been as good without him.  But at their peak, Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson were better.  Also, Dent, Hampton, Steve McMichael and Gary Fencik were always better than Singletary, who was fortunate enough to be the platoon leader of a gang of balls-out, blood-seeking maniacs.  Singletary was good, but not as good as everyone, especially in Chicago, likes to think.

Dent admirably said one of the many people who deserve credit for his great career is Jimbo Covert, the Bears’ left tackle from 1983 to 1990 who sparred with Dent at practice.  I agree with Dent when he says Covert also belongs in Canton as he surely was one of the best tackles to ever play as evidenced by his seven Pro Bowl appearances…but wait.  My Bear-loving memory is fading.  A reference check rudely informed me that Jimbo actually only made the Pro Bowl twice and and was All-Pro twice, as well.  I could have sworn Covert was a Honolulu regular for nearly all the Reagan years.  I was wrong.

Does anyone else from those 1985 Bears deserve to be in the Hall?  Seven-time Pro Bowl center Jay Hilgenberg?  Maybe.  And if Fencik, Marshall, McMichael and Wilson were better than Singletary, then certainly they should all….nah.  It’s tough to put in a bunch of guys from a team that only won one Super Bowl.  Everyone on Earth knows those Bears teams of the 1980s should have won more.  They didn’t.  And Canton owes them nothing.

Who among the current crop of Bears might one day be bronzed?  Brian Urlacher is a shoo-in.  He has made the Pro Bowl seven times, first team All-Pro four times and — listen up kids! — he’s Brian Urlacher!  Urlacher is one of those guys who’s so overrated he actually has become underrated.  Playing linebacker for the Chicago Bears is like playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, centerfield for the New York Yankees or James Bond.  You get far more attention than you deserve and everyone expects to you to be damn good and really cool.  Among contemporaries, Urlacher is nothing close to Ray Lewis and probably wasn’t even as good as Zach Thomas.  But Urlacher is good. Very good.  He’s a better athlete than either of those other guys. If he had played with Dent and Hampton in front of him and Wilson and Marshall beside him, he’d be illegal.

What about Lance Briggs?  He’s in Urlacher territory with six Pro Bowl nods and one All-Pro selection and he’s a very, very good football player.  But Hall of Fame?  Let’s watch him decapitate Aaron Rodgers in this season’s NFC title game and then intercept a pass and bring it into the end zone in a Super Bowl win over the Patriots.  Then, yes, Lance gets in.

Devin Hester is the most exciting NFL player since Deion Sanders, who was among those who went into the Hall along with Dent this past weekend.  Hester holds the NFL record for most career kick and punt returns for touchdowns with a total of 14 and is a serviceable receiver.  But has his career been one for the Bronze Age?  Hester has those 14 TDs (not including one from Super Bowl XLI and a returned missed field goal from the 2006 season) on 291 career returns.  The man whose return record he broke, Brian Mitchell, had 13 career scores on 1,070 returns.  So Hester takes about one of every 20 returns to the house whereas Mitchell took back only about one of every 80.  Mitchell also scored 12 TDs rushing and ran for 1,967 career yards with four TDs and 2,336 yard receiving.  But Hester already has more receiving TDs – 12 – and nearly as much receiving yardage – 2,196 –  and has only played five seasons.  Mitchell played 14.

Certainly Hester’s top return years are behind him, therefore his eye-popping TD-per-return ratio will likely diminish significantly.  But it’s not crazy to project he will retire with 15 career return scores, 25 TD receptions and maybe more exciting moments than any other player in NFL history.  He won’t be a first ballot guy because some will say special teamers should wait in line.  But sometime around 2022 or 2023 his phone will ring.  And the Bears will have another trophy.

The Bears lead the NFL with 27 Hall of Famers and, especially with Dent’s enshrinement this year, it’s only fitting that Chicago was to be playing in the Hall of Fame Game.   That game was cancelled a few weeks ago because the lockout wasn’t over.  Then on Friday, the Bears were to be holding their annual Family Night at Soldier Field, but it was cancelled because the grass was falling apart.  Then on Wednesday night, the lights went out on the Bears’ practice field in Bourbonnais, Illinois.  So the Bears have yet to be seen by the public at large and we hope that’s a bad thing.  It’s a bit of an embarrassment that the Bears play at Soldier Field, which is run by the Chicago Park District, and seems to be treated like any of the other random softball diamonds or tennis courts in the city.  Do things like this happen in other cities?  Bears players, including Urlacher, say Soldier Field should use FieldTurf which is not real grass but far closer to it than artificial turf’s green concrete ancestors.  The Bears would be better on a synthetic surface because they’re a team built on speed and far, far less maintenance would be needed on the fake stuff.

However, many want Soldier Field to remain au naturel.  Fine.  The greatest green grass guy in the world works just a few miles away for the Chicago White Sox.  His name is Roger Bossard, “The Sodfather” and his innovative drainage and irrigation system has been used by the  Sox since the 1960s.  He has also overseen the installation of fields at Wrigley Field, Yankee Stadium, Busch Stadium and at several other major league ballparks.  The man knows his grass. He even has his own bobblehead.  The White Sox, likely, won’t be playing in October and the Bears will be away from Soldier Field for three weeks, so give the Sodfather the keys.  Give the NFL’s charter franchise a respectable field.  We won’t care what the field is made of in January when it’s covered in snow and the Bears are taking apart other members of the NFC on their way to the Super Bowl (Oh, yes..).  But for now, let’s make it pretty.  Let’s keep it safe.  All Bears deserve a pristine playground upon which to do their savagery.

Ed Sabol is now in the Hall of Fame and thank goodness football did the right thing by getting him there.  Sabol is 94, a World War II veteran and is the one who started NFL Films.  One of the many reasons the NFL is America’s favorite sport is that Sabol built such drama around it.  He and his son Steve have spent decades turning the league’s great games into timeless dramas.  NFL Films could make the assembly of a bologna sandwich feel like Superman conquering the dinosaurs.  It’s just a shame that the original voice of NFL Films, John Facenda, is no longer around.  He died in 1984 but his stentorian narrations live on and, thanks to Ed Sabol, every NFL game will always, at least in retrospect, have the look and feel of a timeless struggle between angry men embedded in mud and blood.