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Returning to run down Bucs

Eagles return man Brian Mitchell has hurt Tampa Bay before, and his stellar season has him pumped for more long runs.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 4, 2002

TAMPA -- The names pretty much tell it all. Walter Payton. Jerry Rice.

Only three players in NFL history have surpassed 20,000 in all-purpose yards. Payton and Rice are two. Eagles return man Brian Mitchell is the other.

Talk about esteemed company.

At 33 and in his 12th season out of Southwestern Louisiana, Mitchell may be nearing the end of his career, but clearly he isn't slowing down. He has 20,193 career all-purpose yards -- 11,665 on kick returns, 4,278 on punt returns, 2,298 receiving, 1,947 rushing and 5 on fumble returns.

Lately most have come on special teams, where he is as dangerous as ever, ranking fourth in the league in kickoff return average (25.1 yards) and seventh in punt returns (12 yards).

He also holds six league records for kick returning, including most kicks returned for touchdowns (12), which he shares with Eric Metcalf.

With a good day in Sunday night's regular-season finale against the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium, he could surpass his career high for kickoff return average of 25.6 yards in 1995.

He has consistently given the Eagles good field position, averaging 20 or more kickoff return yards in all but four games and averaging 9 or more yards on punt returns in all but three games.

Three times he has amassed more than 100 kickoff return yards, getting 117 on five returns against the Raiders, 118 on two returns against the Cardinals -- including a 94-yarder for a touchdown -- and 125 on five returns against the Giants on Sunday.

He has four punt returns of 25 or more yards, including one for 54 against the Cowboys.

"He has really had a Pro Bowl season this year and played very well," Eagles coach Andy Reid said.

The 5-10, 221-pound Mitchell didn't make the NFC Pro Bowl squad that was announced Wednesday, but his numbers are impressive, especially for a man who was discarded by the Redskins two seasons ago after failing to amass 1,000 kickoff return yards in a season for the first time since 1993.

When he left Washington there was talk that he was slowing down. That he was getting too old. That he wasn't worth whatever the Redskins were going to have to pay him. The talk hurt Mitchell, who had spent each of his 10 seasons with Washington.

But the Eagles didn't pay attention to the talk.

It took mere days for Philadelphia to snatch him up in the summer of 2000. Dispelling talk that he was losing some of his explosiveness, he amassed more than 1,000 again and, with 955 yards this season, is 45 from doing it again.

Needless to say, he's content with his situation.

"They said I lost a step when I didn't. My last game as a Redskin, I ran a touchdown back," Mitchell told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "People ask me what I miss, and I don't miss the team. I didn't want to leave, but now that I'm gone, I'm happy I'm gone."

The Eagles are tickled about it, too, pleased to have Mitchell's artless yet effective return style. He doesn't make a lot of fakes and spins seen with some returners. Mitchell is more straightforward, a north-and-south runner who goes full speed from the first step and isn't shy about getting physical.

"He's very secure with the football. He's going to pound it up in there," Reid said. "He's fearless on his returns."

None of this is news to the Bucs, who probably wish Mitchell had stayed with Washington because then they wouldn't have to face him in consecutive weeks (Sunday and in next weekend's NFC wild-card game).

Bucs coach Tony Dungy didn't have to be reminded this week what happened the last time Tampa Bay faced Mitchell. Recollections of Mitchell taking the second-half kickoff and going coast to coast for a touchdown for the Redskins two seasons ago are vivid.

The 100-yard score set a league postseason record and almost broke the Bucs, who fell behind 10-0 before rallying to win that NFC divisional playoff game 14-13.

"That was their only touchdown, so we remember that one pretty well," Dungy said. "He has pretty good judgment on what to do and doing the right thing. He makes the big play when they need it."

Still, as effective as Mitchell is, he knows he doesn't have a lot of time remaining in the league. Sooner rather than later, the speed will decline, the first step will lose some quickness and breaking tackles won't be as easy.

The way Mitchell figures it, he has another couple of seasons before that happens.

"I know I can play two more (seasons) the way I feel now," he said. "I would like that to be (in Philadelphia). After two, I'll decide if I can go one more year.

"No man on the face of the earth can decide when my game is over -- except myself."

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