‘The running back whisperer’: The Browns’ rushing success starts with Stump Mitchell
The longtime running backs coach has brought the best out of Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and other Pro Bowl running backs in the NFL
Years before Shaun Alexander emerged as a dominant running back and the 2005 NFL MVP, he was a little-used Seattle Seahawks rookie unsure of his place in the league. Yet in the midst of that first year when he had one start and just 64 carries, he had a coach pull him aside and predict his promising future.
“He told me, ‘As fast as you are, as strong as you are, once you learn how to trust your feet, you will take over this league,’ ” Alexander said. “That coach was Stump Mitchell, and I call him the running back whisperer. He has an ability to tell players what they need to hear to become the greatest version of themselves.”
It’ll take the Cleveland Browns being the greatest version of themselves on Sunday to beat the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs on the road in a divisional-round matchup. The Browns advanced last week after an offensive destruction of the Pittsburgh Steelers, 48-37, for Cleveland’s first playoff win since 1995.
The greatest version of the Browns likely means a big game from the Mitchell-coached running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who present one of the most dangerous rushing duos in the NFL.
“Right now we have everything — general managers, coaches and players — on the same page,” Mitchell said. “That’s really allowed us to have the success we’ve had this season.”
While Baker Mayfield, Chubb and Hunt might garner the most attention on the Browns’ offense, the 61-year-old Mitchell has quietly continued to find success in his role.
It’s no surprise to Alexander, who calls Mitchell “the best running backs coach in the history of the NFL.”
Before you dismiss that as Alexander showering praise on a coach he played under his entire career, examine what Mitchell has accomplished:
- Coached Alexander to that MVP award in 2005 and three Pro Bowl appearances in Seattle
- Helped Mack Strong go from an undrafted rookie to a two-time Pro Bowler in Seattle and one of the best blocking fullbacks in the league
- Assisted Washington fullback Mike Sellers to his only Pro Bowl appearance
- Guided Clinton Portis to rush for 1,487 yards during the 2008 season, which resulted in his second, and final, Pro Bowl appearance
- Coached David Johnson to his only Pro Bowl appearance with the Arizona Cardinals in 2016
“Look at his track record,” Portis said. “He’s gone from team to team to team and has given some guys the best years of their careers. What I appreciated about Stump was that he always kept it real with me.”
That’s what Mitchell is doing with Chubb and Hunt, two extremely talented backs who would likely be putting up massive individual numbers if they weren’t playing for the same team.
Mitchell, a 1981 ninth-round pick who played 10 years in the NFL for three teams, said there hasn’t been an issue juggling the talents of two alpha males in the Cleveland backfield.
“Everybody knows their roles: Nick is the starter, Kareem is the third-down back and their mindset is to do whatever it takes to win,” Mitchell said. “Our goal is to keep everybody fresh and, with this much talent, we’re able to do that.”
Mitchell, earlier in the season, had predicted both players would finish with 1,000 rushing yards, which hasn’t happened in Cleveland since 1985 with Earnest Byner (1,002) and Kevin Mack (1,104). Chubb finished with 1,067 in 12 games (missing four games with a knee injury), and Hunt rushed for 841 yards while making just five starts.
“I’m disappointed it didn’t work out,” Mitchell said.
But in a league that, over the years, has shifted the offensive emphasis from rushing to passing, the Browns rushed for 148.4 yards per game, which ranked third in the league.
Chubb and Hunt have brought different skill sets to the offensive attack.
“Nick is quicker, faster, works extremely hard, and constantly tries to improve,” Mitchell said. “If he’s able to play long enough, he has the ability to be one of the best running backs to play this game.”
Chubb, who has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in back-to-back seasons, credits Mitchell’s guidance.
“In my first couple of years I just wanted to get everything at full speed, 100 mph,” Chubb said earlier this season. “Coach Stump has really slowed me down, kind of taught me how to read things, how to see things, what the line’s trying to do. I think that slowed me down and made me a more patient back.”
In Hunt, Mitchell sees a third-down back who’s more elusive.
“Kareem has the ability to torque his body to evade defenders, and has the mental capacity to get the job done,” Mitchell said. “He’s a powerful guy; he feels he’s the best athlete on the planet.”
And Hunt, according to Mitchell, realizes how fortunate he is to have a second chance in the NFL following an altercation with a woman that was caught on video in 2018 that led to the Chiefs cutting him a year after he made the Pro Bowl as a rookie.
“Kareem understands that, based on the problems he’s had in the past, he’s blessed to have an opportunity to play in the NFL,” Mitchell said. “I don’t babysit Kareem: if I have to get on his ass, I will get on his ass. Even though he’s that alpha male and we go back and forth with each other at times, he understands his blessing and he’s bought into everything that we do.”
This is the second season in Cleveland for Mitchell, who has been a head coach at the high school and college levels (Morgan State and Southern University) but has never risen higher than the running backs coach level in his 22 seasons as an NFL assistant.
Both Portis and Alexander believe Mitchell deserves more opportunities.
“If he had the chance, with his proven track record, he could be an offensive coordinator, because he has shown he’s a leader,” Portis said. “That’s just the issue that we all know about with Black coaches. When you look at the Rooney Rule, which is supposed to help these coaches, he’s a prime example of a guy who has overachieved but has never gotten the opportunity.”
“Stump Mitchell dominated as both a player and a coach, so how do you not give him a chance,” Alexander said. “It’s amazing to look at what’s happening with Eric Bieniemy and Stump. Hopefully one day we’ll figure this out.”
Mitchell, who was retained by Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski following the firing of Freddie Kitchens after his disastrous single season with Cleveland, said he actually spoke to the team owners after Kitchens was dismissed.
“I went in there and told them I was the best guy for the job and explained things to them about myself,” Mitchell said. “And they said, ‘If we don’t hire you as the head coach, will you stay as the running backs coach?’ I told them, ‘Of course.’ ”
Mitchell remains a successful assistant coach who has doubts he’ll ever get the opportunity as a head coach or a coordinator. When asked what it would take for that to ever happen, he offered a solution.
“Expand the league by two teams, one in the AFC and one in the NFC, and allow those teams to have a minority owner, a minority coach and a minority general manager,” Mitchell said. “Give that coach and general manager five years to make it work and if it doesn’t after that time, you have the right to hire whoever you want.
“Doing that solves the problem of Black coaches always facing a quick trigger,” Mitchell added. “I think the fairness would come with ownership.”
Even though Mitchell’s wishes of being a head coach or a coordinator may be a long shot, his former pupils are forever grateful for the chance to be guided by his vast knowledge.
“Early in my career I had a few consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, but I wasn’t satisfied, and I went to Stump and asked him, ‘How do we get to the point where opponents hate playing against Shaun Alexander and the Seahawks?’ ’’ Alexander said. “He set up a meeting in his office and we went over every play that ran, we studied everything, and he reinforced that I had the ability to be that guy, and I believed him and became the league MVP.
“When it comes to running backs coaches, I only had one in the NFL,” Alexander added. “In my mind, he’s the best to ever do it and I can’t imagine anyone else doing the job better.”