Steelers Season Preview Part Two: Pittsburgh Fast to Forget About Willie

Pittsburgh, for all its rich history and culture, is quick to proclaim “new eras.”

As the upcoming G-20 Summit is evidence of, the innate ability of Pittsburghers to embrace change has helped the city escape the choke of mill soot and Iron City hangovers of yore for a blue sky future of service economy nerdery and Hofbrauhaus happy hours.

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A South Side bartender wouldn’t be caught dead carrying a beer-amid in the 70s. Welcome to the New World Order.

Economically, new eras are great. In sports, they don’t always work out as planned.

Case in point: the Rashard Mendenhall era.

Like the Terry “Put In” Hanratty era of the 1970s, the Tim “Woops” Worley era of the early 90s, and the Kendrell “Don’t Call Me Boo” Bell era of the 2000s, the Rashard Mendenhall era was born of hype and hyperbole. Before he had even played an NFL pre-season game, many in Steelers Nation couldn’t wait to anoint Mendenhall as the next Adrian Peterson – an explosive, shifty runner destined to take the NFL by storm.

Judging solely from Mendenhall’s 214-yard performance against the vaunted USC defense in the 2008 Rose Bowl, there was certainly cause for delirium. Alas, after the Steelers drafted Mendenhall in the first round in 2008, Pittsburghers rummaged through their garages to find a shovel for the burial of Willie Parker, their decidedly over-the-hill two-time Pro Bowler.

Such is life in the ‘Burgh. One minute you’re Donny Iris, the next you’re Donny Osmond.

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“I resent that.”

Now, just one year after the Mendenhall era was postponed in its infancy by a bone-crunching Ray Lewis hit that placed the rookie running back on injured reserve, Steelers fans are already wondering aloud if the former Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year is a bust.

To be fair, it’s not Mendenhall’s fault that Lewis separated his shoulder. Injuries happen. But the way he has shuddered at impending contact and gone down to the turf at first resistance during the pre-season is cause for concern. Behind the Steelers’ beleaguered offensive line, you need to be able to fight through contact, because if last season is any indication, running lanes will be tighter than distressed jeans on a Bloomfield hipster.

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And boy, that’s tight.

So if Mendenhall isn’t ready to emerge as a reliable option in 2009, who will shoulder the other half of Willie Parker’s workload?

Here’s an idea: How about Willie Parker?

And just as you nearly spill Rolling Rock all over your keyboard trying to e-mail Pulling No Punches with the salient point that “Parker broke down in the middle of last season,” it is here that PNP says to you: Precisely.

Coach Mike Tomlin’s 2007 promise that the team would “ride Willie until the wheels fall off” turned out to be a prophecy. In back-to-back years, 2006 and 2007, Parker was given over 300 carries, the consensus “tipping point” for the durability of NFL running backs. Predictably, the undersized 5”10, 210 pound party-bus broke down last season and was sidelined for five regular season games.

But while Parker did flounder after returning from his knee injury in the second half of the season, his 146-yard, two touchdown jaunt through the San Diego Chargers defense in the AFC Divisional Playoffs is proof-positive that his race is far from run.

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Ready to throw the dirt on Willie? Not so fast. They thought pro wrestling’s infamous Undertaker was buried alive, too. Parker will be back with purple gloves on in 2009.

If there is one quality Parker has shown in spades, it’s resiliency. This is a man who was effectively benched for the final three years of his college career at the University of North Carolina, who clawed his way onto an NFL team as an undrafted free agent, and who – in the span of one year – went from fourth-string tackling dummy at the Steelers’ South Side practice facility to scampering for the longest rushing touchdown in Super Bowl history.

Last year’s disappointing season may have been a blessing in disguise for Fast Willie, because his injury reduced his workload to a light 210 carries. Fully healthy, Parker is a very effective running back.

Not convinced? Very well then, let’s get studious and look at some statistics.

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The proof is in the pudding pops.

Over the past four seasons, Willie Parker has rushed for 4,808 yards, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. On the ground, he has outperformed puffed up, Nike-sponsored peers like Clinton Portis and Steven Jackson. Jackson, two years Parker’s junior, has rushed for 200 less yards on roughly the same amount of carries. And 90 of his yards came from the greatest commercial in the history of the Western world.

Portis, considered a top 10 back, has gained 4,788 yards over the same span, but saw more carries than Parker. He averaged 4.2 yards per carry.

While Portis and Jackson pose bigger threats catching passes out of the backfield, it’s an erroneous point because the Steelers have always utilized a specialty third down running back this decade – from the sneakily productive Verron Haynes to the mercurial Mewelde Moore.

“Waltzing” Mewelde has passing situations covered. What the Steelers need is a capable runner for frigid late December games in the muck and the mire of Heinz Field when they will be forced to rely on ground-and-pound football. If Steelers fans are going into 2009 with doubts that Parker is the man for the job, the glint of his two Super Bowl rings should shine some light on the conundrum.

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Shield your eyes, Baltimore.

If you’re still restless, just ask yourself, “How would I feel if Clinton Portis was the Steelers running back?” As a pure runner, Parker is actually more efficient.

Of course, all of this casually ignores the elephant in the room – the dreaded Red Zone. Over the past decade, the Steelers have vacillated from quirky to infuriating when they are knocking on their opponents’ doorstep. The last 10 yards always seem the hardest. Last season, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians seemed to have found an answer to the Red Zone dilemma by abandoning the traditional Pittsburgh dogma of “pack the hogs in tight and pound the ball in” for more spread out, unpredictable philosophy.

The Red Zone is where the versatile Mendenhall can make an immediate impact in 2009. In fact, he has the opportunity to become a touchdown thief on par with Jerome Bettis. But first, he needs to learn a lesson or two from his predecessor about resiliency and toughness.

The emerging crop of Mendenhall doubters like to point out that the former Fighting Illini star only had one great season in college, where he ran for over 1,000 yards. That’s true, and maybe in the end he will go the way of “Woops” Worley and countless other busts, but if I was Willie Parker, I would sit down next to the 22-year-old, put my arm around him and say…

“Know how many 1,000 yard seasons I had in college? Zero. Now start running like you’ve got bills to pay.”

Do you think Willie Parker is past his prime? How do you think Rashard Mendenhall looks in pre-season? We want to hear from Steelers Nation in the Comments section.

Categories: Pulling No Punches