Before 2021, Stump Mitchell had gone nearly five decades without missing a football game.
Mitchell, the Browns' running backs coach, had spent just about every fall weekend since the early 1970s on a football field, starting with his high school days as a running back for Camden County High School in Kingsland, Georgia. He was 5-foot-9 and an undersized but tough runner willing to lower his shoulder against anyone, a mentality that earned him the nickname "Stump" — his real name is Lyvonia — and led him to a long career in football.
From his college days at The Citadel, where he still holds the program record for rushing yards in a season (1,647) and a career (4,062), to the four-decade journey as a coach built after nine seasons as an NFL rusher from 1981-90, Mitchell has never been one to miss a game.
That streak came to an end last October.
Mitchell, 62, was not on the sidelines for the Browns' final 10 games of the season in 2021 after undergoing two separate procedures on a previous knee injury, which began irritating him again last June. He attempted to coach through the pain, strolling the practice fields at CrossCountry Mortgage Campus through training camp and the first seven weeks of the season, but decided to undergo the procedures and pass his coaching duties to assistants Callie Brownson, Ryan Cordell and Kevin Rogers starting Week 8.
The hardest part? Not being on the field with a headset on, delivering coaching instructions to his talented room of running backs.
"I think this is probably the first time I ever missed coaching a game, either in college or the NFL," Mitchell said in a recent interview. He cracked a small smile and looked down as he came to the realization of his longevity, but he was straight-faced when he remembered watching games from the TV at his home.
"It's definitely an adjustment. You want to be able to play and help your team out, and you try to do that by supporting them. But it's still not the same as being there. You want to be in front of the guys. You want to be in the battle with them as well."
Mitchell will be back in the battle in 2022.
He returned to his full-time duties as the running backs coach at the end of February and is back in the Browns' headquarters, where his easygoing, knowledgeable and humorous personality was missed. He'll enter his fourth season with the Browns, which makes him one of the longest-tenured members of the coaching staff.
Only one other member of the staff, special teams coordinator Mike Priefer, has been with the Browns for the same amount of time as Mitchell, and as Mitchell sat in a chair outside the cafeteria and discussed his recovery, Priefer approached him from behind and wrapped him in a bear hug.
It was his first time seeing Mitchell back in the building, and his smile couldn't have been bigger.
"You coming back for good now?" Priefer said, "or are you gonna take another six months off?"
Mitchell laughed as Priefer made another joke about how he wanted to race him.
"At the Combine," Mitchell said. "We'll be the only two running."
Mitchell's absence was felt by everyone on the team, even though the Browns' run game still remained one of the best in the NFL and finished fourth in the league with 2,471 rushing yards. They also led the league in rushing average with 5.09 yards per carry, a credit to the consistency upheld from Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and D'Ernest Johnson.
Even though Mitchell wasn't in the building, he still kept in contact with the running backs via Zoom calls and texts and had weekly Zoom meetings with Brownson, Cordell and Rogers to review the game plan. Mitchell commended Brownson, the Browns' Chief of Staff and recently-named assistant wide receivers coach, and Cordell, now a coaching assistant with the Vikings, for their work in preparing the group each week. Rogers, a senior offensive assistant, oversaw the room, too, but the brunt of the daily work was largely handled by Brownson and Cordell.
Mitchell never doubted that the coaching staff could keep the running backs afloat. The Browns persevered through a wave COVID-19-related absences in 2020 during the Wild Card playoff game and still won, which highlighted the versatility the group has in stepping into other coaching positions and ensuring no drop-off in preparation or production.
The trust among the staff couldn't be higher, which is why no one flinched when news came that Mitchell was going to be away.
"I thought (Cordell and Brownson) did a remarkable job with the guys," Mitchell said. "One good thing about this organization is that we all think we're pretty good from top to bottom, so when anyone ever steps in as a coach or as a player, we feel like we can get the job done."
Mitchell, however, still reviewed one particularly important part of the game plan with the RBs each week: the offensive line.
That group saw several players rotate positions as a result of injuries, particularly at the tackle positions. The O-line never completed a game as an in-tact unit this season, and the constant shuffling of starters meant the running backs had to study each players' tendencies and strengths so they knew which holes could be best to hit on each run.
One switch caught Mitchell's eye more than any other — Joel Bitonio, a left guard, played left tackle for two weeks in Weeks 15 and 16. Starting LT Jedrick Wills Jr. was on the COVID-19 list during that period, and Mitchell thought Bitonio did an elite job of plowing holes and showing an even higher level of aggression on run plays compared to guard, where he's earned four consecutive Pro Bowl nominations.
"Watching Joel play tackle was just phenomenal," Mitchell said. "You see the speed that he possessed as a guard, and he pulls extremely well, but to see him as a tackle and jump guys? It was amazing."
Mitchell was proud of the men in his own room, too. Chubb, in particular, kept the run game strong as he always has since he was drafted in the second round in 2018 and finished second in the NFL with 1,259 rushing yards. He's finished second in the league in rushing twice in his career and has been in the top 10 for three of his first four seasons in the league.
Mitchell has always believed that Chubb is capable of winning a rushing title. He still holds that belief as Chubb, 26, enters his fifth year, but he also knows that such an achievement is tougher to accomplish when carries are split with another starting-caliber running back in Hunt, who still had 78 carries for 386 yards.
"For him to finish second in the league in rushing is pretty good because of the way we do things in terms of him getting touches, Kareem getting touches or D'Ernest getting touches," Mitchell said. "He's always on stride to be No. 1, but I don't know, with us splitting carries with the way it is, if that will ever happen. But it's always going to be his goal. He's never going to settle for being No. 2, but at the end of the day, all he can do is his best and just answering the bell."
Even with Hunt out, the Browns still had quality depth at RB because of Johnson, who had a breakout year of sorts by rushing for 534 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and totaling 95 or more rushing yards in three games.
To Mitchell, that work was a testament to how hard Johnson has worked toward carving a prominent role on an NFL roster and how well the coaching staff did toward getting him ready for high-volume roles.
"When you can get your backup to come in and perform just as well as those guys, that's what we aim and coach for," Mitchell said. "That's when we as coaches take our pride in coaching the second- and third-string guys because we know at some point in time, they're going to be our first-string guy."
Mitchell, of course, believes the running backs and entire Browns offense are in position for a bigger season after falling short of the playoffs. Even though he wasn't in the building shortly after the season ended, he can already tell that the sense of disappointment for 2021 has turned into a feeling of invigoration to be a stronger team in 2022.
And with Mitchell back, the Browns will no doubt be stronger.
"I think we have a great thing going here in Cleveland," he said. "It's a good feeling being able to be around guys who want to continue to get better and strive to win. I think everybody's mind is in the right place, and the arrow is definitely pointing up."