Say It With Me: Running Backs Are Fungible

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.

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    I agree with the overall content of the post, RB's are easily replaceble, but I would not go that far as to “anybody” could do fit…specifically Willie Parker…he is done, and his style does not fit the need of this offense anymore, he can't either catch or block, he can't break a tackle or attack the hole with decision and he is no longer fast…the guys behind Rashard on the roster should be OK…do not bring back beaten players…let the younger, fresh and hungrier get the load…

  • ryan


    I take your point and I was probably overselling it a bit with FWP. But for as much as Parker drove me crazy in recent seasons, I think he'd be fine in the role for 3-4 weeks. But that aside, I agree that if the Steelers do have to play without Rashard for whatever reason, I'd be fine with Moore, and while Dwyer would hasn't shown he's capable of much in training camp, Wex notes that the team is high on him (or at least they were 20 pounds and a few months ago). Rookie running backs routinely have success, more so than players at other positions.

    Also worth keeping in mind: other veteran RBs who might get cut in the coming weeks. If the Steelers feel there's a need, I'm sure there would be some names to sift through that could handle the workload, at least in the near term.

  • FW

    Don't let the mantra blind you: RBs are fungible, but not universally, and not because talent falls off a cliff past a handful of elite. Ask yourself why RBs are fungible, and a few truths emerge.

    First, the position requires a far shorter apprenticeship than just about any other, save perhaps kicker. WR takes 2-3 years to truly learn route trees and pro techniques; likewise CBs. QBs continue to improve at learning the playbook and reading coverages well past 4 or 5 years into their careers. OL tend toward the higher Wonderlic because it takes a couple of years to learn all the blocking assignments and subtleties of leverage; ditto DL, some pass rush specialists excepted. RBs can be inserted as first-year players, and run on instinct. That learning curve alone goes a long way toward explaining the fungibility phenom.

    However, some teams are more accomodating of this interchangeability. Given a superior line, you can run lesser backs with success. Of the Denver teams mentioned, two ranked top-1o in FO run blocking ('04: 8th, '00: 5th), with one squarely mid-pack ('99: 18th). Steeler teams of the past five years have seen two top-15 run-blocking lines ('09: 14th, '05: 12th), and the rest third tier ('08: 24th, '07: 20th, '06: 22nd). 2005 is verging on ancient history, so the question is how an OL mired in a three-year stretch of run-blocking mediocrity suddenly broke out of its funk.

    My suggestion would be that it was the emergence of the Steelers' first legitimate star RB since the glory days of the Bus. Parker was speedy but one-dimensional, and he couldn't thrive behind that meager OL, whereas Mendenhall made chicken salad out of chicken scat. I don't know that Mendenhall is destined to be mentioned in the same breath as AP, but he's at least one of the promising young stars at RB. Comparing his size, vision, acceleration and top-level speed to the rest of the RBs on roster is an exercise in contrasts: there's no one else that's coming close to his skills. Moore is a versatile utility back, but he comes up short in every category of comparison. The big backs (Redman, Dwyer, and Summers), two of whom will likely be retained, have neither top speed nor anything resembling vision. To replace Mendenhall with any of these other backs would be to see our OL rankings drop back into the 20s, and the suggestion that Parker could somehow channel the Ghost of FWP Past is to ignore that injuries have taken their toll on Parker's primary asset.

    The anwer to “then what?”, if Mendenhall is injured, is simple. The Steelers will not have anything resembling a rushing threat, or a competent rushing game. The Steelers line is not elite, and would in such a situation be hopelessly exposed. Adams replacing Colon is an even cop, and Pouncey inserted into the middle somewhere should help, but how much how soon remains to be seen. Fans who exuberantly project Dwyer as a feature back need to realize that his transition from the GT offense to the NFL is going to be a rude awakening: those gaps close mighty quickly in the bigs, and the defenses aren't Vandy and Jacksonville St. any more.

    The argument of fungibility needs to be taken in the context of what makes a running game successful: line play, effective play-calling, and yes, actual RB talent (some measurable, some qualitative).

  • ryan


    Thanks for that. You made your points much better than I did. I probably shouldn't have ended with “And should it come to that, I suspect Parker will be able to handle the job,” above since, as you point out (and JC recognized below), FWP is done. And right, it's not as simple as me saying, “Stick anybody in there — dont' worry — without controlling for the o-line and other offensive talent surrounding the RB in question.” Thanks for pointing that out.

    On the other hand… Bruce Arians is in control, so nothing to worry about!

  • FW

    On the other hand… Bruce Arians is in control, so nothing to worry about!

    This is why I drink in the mornings.

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