The countless thousands who wanted the Steelers to trade or release Rashard Mendenhall after his controversial tweets about Osama bin Laden in May must not have been at Heinz Field Thursday night for a preseason game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Mendenhall was cheered when he was introduced with the offense. His ovation might not have matched the ones for teammates Maurkice Pouncey, Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward, but it was significant. Then, Mendenhall contributed in a big way to long, time-consuming touchdown drives on the first two possessions. The cheers turned into roars. The game turned into a 24-14 Steelers blowout.
Many are so predictable. The reaction to Mendenhall was more proof that they either easily forgive or conveniently forget a star player's perceived transgressions as long as that player performs well for their team.
"I didn't really think about it. I was just focused on the game," Mendenhall said. "But it was cool."
This was the first chance Steelers fans had to eyeball Mendenhall since his rather eventful offseason. He didn't take long to make 'em glad the Rooneys and coach Mike Tomlin didn't overreact to his bin Laden tweets, which questioned bin Laden's role in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and why so many were so quick to celebrate his death. Mendenhall ran hard, starting with the first play when he put a move on defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins for a 4-yard gain. He stepped out of a tackle try by safety Kurt Coleman for a 9-yard pickup. On maybe his most impressive play, he blocked defensive end Trent Cole to give Roethlisberger time to escape to his left, then drifted behind the coverage and made a one-handed catch of Roethlisberger's pass for a 12-yard gain.
It was an early glimpse of Mendenhall's many talents. And it was impressive.
The first-team offense as a whole was strong, cranking out two 14-play touchdown drives, one covering 80 yards, the other 96. Roethlisberger threw touchdown passes of 29 yards to Antonio Brown on a third-and-7 play and 20 yards to Ward on third-and-18. Mendenhall's backup, Isaac Redman, had a 16-yard run and continued to show he's capable of toting the pig if Tomlin doesn't want to run the wheels off Mendenhall or -- worse -- Mendenhall gets injured. Depth is a beautiful thing.
"We were talking about it on the sideline," Redman said. "The one-two punch we've got, we're pretty comfortable with it. It's going to be hard for defenses to stop that."
"I believe so," Mendenhall said. "Capable backs like that" -- he also mentioned Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer -- "cause a world of problems."
Mendenhall is on the verge of becoming a star. He had a big season last year, carrying a mind-numbing 324 times for 1,273 yards and 13 touchdowns. But his story had a sad ending. He fumbled on the first play of the fourth quarter in Super Bowl XLV. You probably remember it. The Steelers trailed the Green Bay Packers, 21-17, but were driving with a second-and-2 at the Green Bay 33 when linebacker Clay Matthews separated the ball from Mendenhall. The Packers turned the fumble into a touchdown and went on to win, 31-25.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison called Mendenhall a "fumble machine" in a Men's Journal article in June, an inaccurate observation if there ever was one. Harrison quickly said his quotes were misconstrued or taken out of context or blown out of proportion or maybe all of the above. Mendenhall, for his part, shrugged and said he had no problem with Harrison because he knows him as a good teammate and a good person.
At that point, Mendenhall just wanted to stay out of the news. His Twitter opinions soon after bin Laden's death were widely criticized as being flat wrong and insensitive. He tweeted that bin Laden might not have been entirely responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "We'll never know what really happened." He also tweeted his disbelief and disappointment that human beings could celebrate another human's death.
Mendenhall later clarified his comments, saying he wasn't anti-American. He also said he was speaking from a religious standpoint, not a political one.
That was good enough for a lot of us, who disagreed with Mendenhall's views but respected his right to have them.
Clearly, his performance against the Eagles was good enough for a lot more.
. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.