If I’m making a list of things that don’t concern me about the Steelers heading into the 2010 season it would include: Harrison’s swagger, Hines’ toughness, Skippy’s hobo awesomeness, and that the running game will be fine.
Want to worry about Byron replacing Ben? Fine, that’s probably a good idea. A little anxious about losing Willie Colon for the year and how 35-year-old Flozell Adams will make out on the right side? Fair enough. But I just can’t get worked up about the lack of depth at running back.
Does it exist? Certainly. Is it a problem? Nope. Many of you have heard my annual sermon on “Why Running Backs Don’t Matter: Defining Fungibility” but it’s worth dusting it off now since starter Rashard Mendenhall missed much of practice last week with a toe injury, and rookie Jonathan Dwyer, drafted in the sixth round in April, gained 20 pounds since OTAs and has spent most of training camp nursing a sore hammy.
Behind Mendenhall on the depth chart: jack of all trades Mewelde Moore, Isaac Redman, Frank Summers and recent Eagles castoff fullback Dwayne Wright. Not exactly a bunch of guys who will force opposing defenses to game plan against them. But running back, unlike quarterback or left tackle or nose tackle, or, hell, just about any other position, is a relatively easy fix.
1) Find body, 2) insert into lineup, 3) repeat as necessary.
That’s obviously a huge oversimplification, but when Mike Shanahan was with the Broncos, he’d find some guy and turn him into a 1,000-yard rusher at worst, a Pro Bowler at best. Terrell Davis is the most popular example, a former sixth-round pick who amassed 6,413 yards on the ground in four seasons, including a 2,008-yard effort in 1998. But there’s also Olandis Gary (1,159 yds in 1999), Mike Anderson (1,487 yds in ’00) and Reuben Droughns (1,240 yds in ’04). Of the four, Droughns, a third-rounder, was drafted highest (Gary was a fourth-rounder; Anderson a sixth-rounder).
The Steelers have up-close-and-personal experience with giving a warm body a chance and watching him blossom into a Pro Bowler and Super Bowl record setter. Willie Parker was a long shot to make the team in 2004, surprised everybody during a meaningless (for the Steelers, anyway) Week 17 game against the Bills (19 carries, 102 yards), and when both the Bus and Duce were injured to start ’05, guess who filled in? Fast Willie busted out a 22-carry, 161-yard effort in the Steelers Week 1 beatdown of the Titans, and a legend was born.
Nobody knew what to expect from Parker that day, but leading up to the game plenty of folks were concerned. Partly because the running game helped make Ben so effective his rookie season, but also because Willie didn’t even play on a crappy UNC team. What chance would he have against an NFL defense? Turns out, if he can take a handoff, and the five fat guys in front of him (six if you include Ben) can block a little, it’s not that hard.
Running as fast as you can requires much less skill than, say, throwing or catching or kicking a football, sustaining a block, or rushing the passer. The lesson: you don’t have to be a first-round pick to be a successful NFL running back. In fact, I’ve been arguing for years that taking a top-10 pick on a rusher is a waste of money unless you’re certain you’re getting Adrian Peterson. (The problem, of course, is that unless you have a time machine, it’s a gamble, which explains why teams continue to take backs early.)
And with Ben out for a month and Byron under center, the lack of depth behind Mendenhall is troubling for some people. Worth remembering: Moore replaced an injured Parker during the 2008 season and ran for 99, 120 and 84 yards against the Jags, Bengals and Giants. Moore is a fantastic third-down back (I like to call him a poor man’s Kevin Faulk and I consider it a huge compliment … he may not) but he’s not a prototypical NFL starter. But that’s the beauty of fungibility: it doesn’t matter.
In September 2007, then-rookie head coach Mike Tomlin said that “we’re going to run Willie until the wheels come off,” which, it turns out, is exactly what happened. But here’s what I wrote at the time:
“Presumably, FWP will be easily replaceable. Okay, I don’t really think that — and I hate being business-like about FWP’s future … it makes me feel dirty — but I will say this: most likely, the drop off from Fast Willie to Plan B wouldn’t be as humongous as you might expect. Maybe the Steelers will just blow out their opponents over the next 14 games and they’ll save Willie that way. Otherwise, we might as well crank up the “so, which running back is Pittsburgh taking with their 2008 first-round pick?” conversation. I vote for Darren McFadden … either that, or they should trade that first-round pick to Philly for Tony Hunt.”
Parker played in 15 games that season, racked up 1,300 rushing yards and went to the Pro Bowl. And the Steelers ended up with Mendenhall in the draft. But not because they felt they had to address the position, but because 22 picks into the first round and Mendenhall was still on the board.
Whatever, history is now repeating itself; there isn’t much to speak of behind the No. 1 back and, god forbid, Rashard goes down. Then what? Well, the Steelers will go with Moore and be fine. And if not Moore it will be somebody else. Perhaps even Fast Willie, who has two things going for him in that regard: he’s currently fourth on depth chart in Washington, and the band’s back together. And should it come to that, I suspect Parker will be able to handle the job.