Notes: The curious case of Bobby Mitchell

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My defining memory of Bobby Mitchell is this bit from the NFL’s “75 Seasons” documentary, where he describes the dubious honor of being the player to integrate the Washington Redskins, then owned by the notoriously racist George Preston Marshall:

So, unlike most of the athletes that came before my time, I always thought of Mitchell as a man first, and as a collection of statistics second. I assumed his numbers were good (he’s in the Hall of Fame, after all), but I never really sat down and analyzed his on-field production until the Apples & Oranges project.

At first glance, his career stats don’t blow you over: 7954 yards receiving, 2735 yards rushing, and 3391 yards returning kicks and punts in the course of 11 seasons. It’s a well-rounded résumé, but nothing spectacular, reflective of his changing role on two different teams.

He started out lining up in the backfield next to Jim Brown in Cleveland, where he generally had 500 yards rushing and 300 receiving. Had he stayed there, he probably would have finished with numbers similar to Lenny Moore in Baltimore, a contemporary halfback who was a similar type of dual threat out of the backfield. But fate took a hand.

In 1962, he was traded for the rights to Ernie Davis, whom Washington had drafted under pressure, after Davis refused to sign with the Redskins. In the capital, he became a full-time wide receiver (Pro Football Reference lists him as a halfback that first year, but he had only one carry for 5 yards. He may have been going into motion on every play, but I think it’s more likely that he was a flanker from day one).

He was spectacular in his first two seasons in Washington, leading the league in receiving in 1962 and 1963, and even as he declined a bit in the following years, he still provided plenty of big plays and was the only bright spot on a series of mediocre Redskins teams.

It was a surprise, therefore, when his final rating came in at 20.08, good for second on the wide receiver list, ahead of the transcendent Jerry Rice. I double-checked the numbers, then triple-checked. But the math was right; all that versatility, the rushing stats early in his career and the steady contribution in the return game, pushed him ahead of specialist pass-catchers.

The 1950s and ’60s were a time of tactical transition in the NFL. A utility back like Mitchell could pick up yards here and there as his coaches searched for a winning formula. It seemed strange, that he would outrank other receivers because he did non-receiver things, so I considered listing him with the running backs (they’re more productive than wide receivers, so he would have been comfortably middle-of-the-pack there), or with the return specialists … but ultimately I came to the conclusion that he played more games as a receiver, that’s where his biggest contribution was and that’s where his signature seasons came.

There isn’t really another comparable player. Elroy Hirsch switched from RB to flanker much earlier in his career, Frank Gifford did the same at the end. Moore never moved from the backfield. Paul Hornung was just as diverse, but in a different way. So my No. 2 receiver is player who was not entirely receiver, but also more than that. Someone who deserves to be remembered more for his versatility on the field than being put on the spot by a racist organization.

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