Both in terms of on-field play and off-field significance, there is simply no contest at #49: Bobby Mitchell is the easy winner.
Mitchell was already an established NFL standout when he came to the Redskins from the Cleveland Browns in 1962. The Skins had gotten an eyeful of Mitchell in a 1959 game in which the then-running back ran for 232 yards and three touchdowns on just 14 carries.
During Mitchell’s stint in Cleveland, he absolutely killed Washington. The Browns won every game, going 8-0 against the Redskins. During the final six of those games, spanning 1959-1961, Mitchell scored 10 touchdowns and threw a touchdown pass.
George Preston Marshall had seen enough.
But the move to acquire Mitchell wasn’t just an ordinary trade. In 1962, the Redskins were the last NFL team not to have integrated, with Marshall famously once having said that he would sign black players “when the Harlem Globetrotters start signing whites.”
The Redskins’ poor performance during this era wasn’t enough to deter Marshall. Eventually, though, the government had had enough. The Kennedy Administration made it clear that, unless the Redskins signed a black player, it would revoke the lease on D.C. Stadium (later known as RFK Stadium).
Facing the prospect of finding a new place to play, Marshall relented, selecting Syracuse’s Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis with the first pick of the 1962 Draft. However, after being drafted, Davis called Marshall an “S.O.B.” and said he would never play for him, demanding a trade.
The Redskins obliged, getting Mitchell and first-round pick Leroy Jackson from the Browns in exchange for the rights to Davis. Sadly, Davis never played a down in the NFL. He was diagnosed with leukemia in the summer of 1962 and passed away in 1963. As a sidenote, Browns coach Paul Brown executed the trade without the consent of Cleveland owner Art Modell, which was one of the contributing factors to Modell firing the popular and ultra-successful Brown.
But back to Mitchell. His impact on the Redskins was immediate. Already a Pro Bowl player, Mitchell took his game to new heights in Washington. In his first year in a Redskins uniform, Mitchell started at halfback and led the entire NFL in receiving. He caught 72 balls for 1,384 yards and 11 touchdowns, going on to be named first-team All-Pro.
Mitchell was a halfback in name only, however. The Redskins had effectively converted him into a wide receiver. He officially became a flanker in 1964, and his production remained among the best in the NFL. He hauled in 69 passes for an NFL-best 1,436 yards. The next year, he led the NFL in receiving touchdowns with 10 after another Pro Bowl year.
Mitchell continued to be a dangerous receiver for several more seasons, and, in doing so, he helped the Redskins go from doormats to a legitimately competitive NFL team again. Washington had won a total of five games in the three seasons before Mitchell arrived. They went 5-7-2 in his debut year.
No, they weren’t contenders, but the Redskins weren’t the laughingstock of the league anymore, either. The strides Washington made during Mitchell’s tenure helped lay a foundation for the success they would achieve under George Allen, who arrived in 1971.
Mitchell finished his seven years in D.C. with 6,492 receiving yards on 393 receptions, 49 receiving touchdowns, two rushing touchdowns, and two kickoff return touchdowns. He also tied an NFL record with a 99-yard touchdown reception on a pass from George Izo.
Most importantly of all, Mitchell’s arrival signaled that Washington was finally joining the modern NFL. Marshall’s racism had long passed the point of costing the Redskins far too much on and off the field. Mitchell, and the black players who followed him, allowed Washington to take its place as a legitimate NFL team—both in terms of its football-related activities and its standing in the country at large.
Just based on pure football contributions alone, there’s nobody who comes close to Mitchell at #49. Mitchell is not only an NFL Hall of Famer, but he also served as a member of the Redskins’ front office from his retirement as a player in 1968 until 2003.
Even if he had legitimate competition in the form of another All-Pro, it wouldn’t matter. Mitchell was a pioneer who blazed the trail that the Redskins followed to get from rock bottom to world-championship glory.
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