Nineteen years ago, the Steelers selected Tim Worley in the first round
Would you believe that a team whose hallmark is a stout running game has not taken a running back No. 1 since?
April 23, 2008 8:00 AM
Tim Worley, Running back
It's been so long since the Steelers drafted a running back in the first round that the Pirates not only had winning seasons, but they also reached the playoffs three times.
Oh, the good old days.
The Pirates toil relentlessly toward a record 16th consecutive losing season, and the Steelers could make it 19 in a row without drafting a runner in the first round -- or the second round, for that matter.
Oregon's Jonathan Stewart, a 5-10, 235-pound bull of a runner, or Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall, 10 pounds lighter but with 4.41 speed, would look great alternating with Willie Parker in the backfield next season. But those two project higher than the Steelers' spot at No. 23 and it appears, the value at running back when it comes their turn in the first round won't hold.
The PG spends the week getting fans ready for the NFL draft Saturday and Sunday.
Somewhere, a running back could be in the Steelers' draft this weekend, but there's more of a chance that will happen in the third or fourth rounds; the draft is deep in good backs and it's not as if the Steelers are desperate for one.
"If you're in the market for a runner, this would be a good year to get one," said Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage.
But how can a team that has rushed for more yards than any other since the NFL merger in 1970 not have drafted a back in the top two rounds since 1989?
The answers are Tim Worley, Jerome Bettis and a good run of success taking backs later in the draft.
The Steelers do not have the longest stretch of ignoring the position in the first round. The Washington Redskins, who traded away many first-round picks the past 40 years, haven't drafted an offensive back on the first round since 1967 (Ray McDonald). The Philadelphia Eagles haven't done so since Keith Byars became their top pick in '86. Denver hasn't drafted a back No. 1 since the Broncos claimed Bobby Humphrey in the '89 supplemental draft, forfeiting their No. 1 pick for '90.
"I think some of it is the fact Pittsburgh has been so built on the offensive and defensive lines," said Rob Rang, senior analyst for NFLDraftScout.com. "Defense wins championships, that's been their philosophy under Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and now. They focus on their offensive line and figure you can find yourself a running back, like it's almost a passed-on belief or philosophy how you can find a running back later in the draft."
During that 18-draft drought, the Steelers have had success doing so. They selected Barry Foster in the fifth round in 1990 and he set the team's rushing record with 1,690 yards in '92. They selected Bam Morris in the third round in '94 and he started for their '95 Super Bowl team.
But the biggest reason they did not draft a back in the first round for so many years was The Bus.
Tom Donahoe, then the Steelers director of football operations, swung a trade for Bettis during the 1996 draft, stealing him from St. Louis for a second-round pick that year and a fourth-rounder in '97.
"Bettis was a horse and you knew he was going to get 300-plus carries and we had some decent guys who worked behind him," Donahoe said. "Part of it is, he played such a long time and was productive, there really wasn't a need to be looking."
When that need arose, they got lucky with free agent Parker, who served one year as an apprentice under Bettis in 2004 and became the starter with The Bus behind him in '05.
Funny how their luck turned in that area. Worley brought them no luck. He had a decent first season in 1989 with 770 yards but drugs got hold of him and he was suspended for the entire '92 season. The Steelers traded him to Chicago in '93 and a series of arrests off the field and failure on it put him out of football by the next year.
Worley, the seventh overall pick in the 1989 draft, was inducted in October into the Georgia-Florida game Hall of Fame. However, his problems with the law haven't ended. Ten days ago, he was arrested in Smyrna, Ga., for drunken driving after police hit him with a Taser when he became combative, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Worley, who lives in Alpharetta, Ga., was also charged with speeding and other violations. He was being held on outstanding warrants in two other counties as well.
The Worley pick in 1989 also caused them to miss a Hall of Fame running back the next year. The Steelers had the 17th pick in that draft and Emmitt Smith was still available. But having taken Worley No. 1 the year before, the instead accepted a trade with Dallas to move down to No. 21, where they drafted tight end Eric Green. The Cowboys went on to win three Super Bowls with Smith, the NFL's career rushing leader.
The drought actually goes back further than Worley because the Steelers have not drafted a 1,000-yard rusher in the first round since Franco Harris in 1972. Their other first-round backs since then were Greg Hawthorne in '79 and Walter Abercrombie in '82.
"We went to the wall three times and at least got something with Franco," said Art Rooney Jr., the Steelers' player personnel head in those days. "I think we over-drafted both of those guys."
The Steelers did not always go long stretches ignoring running backs at the top of the draft. In fact, for more than three decades they did little but draft backs in the first round.
It started with their very first pick, Bill Shakespeare of Notre Dame in 1936. Through 1966, they had drafted 19 backs in the first round, including two Heisman Trophy winners, Army's Doc Blanchard in '45 and Notre Dame's Johnny Lattner in '54. A few were two-way backs ticketed for the defensive secondary, but most were picked to play in the offensive backfield. They hit it big in '42 with Hall of Famer Bill Dudley, who led the NFL in rushing twice with the Steelers. Whizzer White was another in '38 and although he only played one season for the Steelers, he led the league in rushing.
"The Chief said some of those guys we drafted in the early days could make more money in the real world," Art Jr. said about his father.
Rang has a theory why the Steelers haven't drafted many backs high the past two decades, and it may apply to why they did in their first three.
"The thinking out there is flashy running backs sell a lot of jerseys and put a lot of butts in seats," Rang said. "And when you have a team like Pittsburgh with its fan base, you can get away without it, while I don't think other teams can."
For 18 years, the Steelers have gotten away with ignoring running backs at the top of the draft. It appears they will try to make it 19 Saturday.