Despite newspapers perpetually slashing budgets, I’m pretty sure Ed Bouchette hasn’t yet been relegated to writing his own headlines. Whatever, this was atop his Sunday piece about Rashard Mendenhall’s heavy workload: “On the Steelers: Mendenhall Destined for Same Fate as Parker?”
My initial reaction: Who cares?
Mendenhall had 324 carries in 2010 and 242 the year before. Parker, who the Steelers didn’t re-sign after the 2009 season, had 337 carries in 2006 and 321 in 2007 before injuries and Mr. Mendenhall ushered him out of town. Football Outsiders has been beating the “Curse of 370″ drum since 2004, although subsequent work of others found the curse to be a myth.
Either way, Bouchette’s story is less about Rashard following Fast Willie’s career arc out of football and more about Tomlin’s comments on his vision for the Steelers running game.
“You know, that’s why you draft running backs, to hand them the ball,” Tomlin said during an interview last week at the NFL meetings in New Orleans. “Wear and tear is part of the game, specifically at that position. You worry about it, but it doesn’t dominate your thought. It’s just part of the game.”
Tomlin, when he was hired in 2006, said he preferred to split the carries between two backs, but that has not happened. His philosophy for using running backs has changed since the Steelers hired him.
“The reality is always very different than your vision” is how Tomlin explained it. “In most instances, regardless of what subject or element you’re looking at, the reality is very different than your vision, and I imagine that’s the case in all jobs.”
So what are the options?
A) Make more of an effort to lighten Mendenhall’s workload, which means more carries for Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer or Mewelde Moore (assuming he’s re-signed). Seems reasonable, especially since Redman played well last season in relief of Mendenhall, even if that meant just 247 rushing yards on 52 carries (4.8 average).
B) To paraphrase Tomlin: run Rashard until the wheels come off. You may have heard something about my theory on the fungibility of running backs. It’ll be on my tombstone right below “Went to college with Mike Tomlin.” I like Mendenhall, thought the Steelers were right to take him 23rd overall in the 2008 draft, and he’s gotten better each year in Pittsburgh.
And while there are things he does that other backs can’t, he is replaceable. Unlike, say, Big Ben or Mike Wallace, who are one-of-a-kind talents, the Steelers would have been just as successful with a number of other players, most selected after the first round or not at all.
A quick glance at the rushing efficiency leaders on Football Outsiders shows that Jamaal Charles (third round) and Arian Foster (undrafted) top the list. In fact, the top 15 rushers include just three first-rounders (Peterson, Felix Jones, Tomlinson) to go along with bottom-of-the-draft names like Peyton Hillis and Ahmad Bradshaw, and the undrafted likes of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Chris Ivory.
As for what the Steelers should do, I’m impartial — either A) or B) works, although you could argue that Pittsburgh should get while the gettin’ is good. Run Rashard now, while he’s young and healthy. No need to share the burden only to see him leave for more money when his rookie deal expires. Or worse: break down after signing a second contract to stay in Pittsburgh. The career for running backs is shorter than for other positions, and once they hit their late 20s, the decline is swift and steep. It is possible to delay the inevitable — the Jets were able to squeeze another year out of LaDainian Tomlinson after he did a decade’s worth of of heavy lifting in San Diego, but he’s the exception.
I don’t mean to sound cold about this because I like Mendenhall. He’s a good back and seems like a better person. The Steelers have done well with those types of personalities. But he’s also a running back. His job is to, you know, run the ball. Plus, who knows if Parker still wouldn’t have spent last fall on the couch even if the Steelers had limited his carries back in ’06 and ’07.
The solution, clearly: the Steelers should traded up in next month’s draft to get Mark Ingram.