Willie Parker said he is done tutoring Rashard Mendenhall, the Steelers' No. 1 pick this year. Parker said he has stopped giving the rookie running back advice about playing in the National Football League and won't do so again unless he is asked.
But, before anyone accuses the two-time Pro Bowl running back of being selfish or feeling threatened about Mendenhall's development, consider the reason: Parker said he thinks Mendenhall is getting too much advice and just needs to go out and run the football, unencumbered and without thinking too much.
"I told him I'm going to stay away from him a little bit because everybody is telling him too much right now," Parker said yesterday. "Then your mind gets clouded and he makes mistakes he normally wouldn't make. You don't want to tell him too much, so I told him I'm going to step back a little bit and have everybody else leave him alone and let him go out and play football."
Coach Mike Tomlin issued a similar critique several weeks ago after the first goal-line drill of training camp, saying Mendenhall needed to think less and run more instinctively in short-yardage opportunities.
Now, after two preseason games, Parker is saying the same thing, all with the direct purpose of letting Mendenhall's running style -- a combination of power, speed and wiggle -- freely start to blossom.
The Steelers already have seen some flashes, including the easy manner in which Mendenhall scored on a 6-yard run against the Buffalo Bills -- his first touchdown of the preseason.
"To have a feeling like that, that you haven't had in a while, gives you a little confidence," said Mendenhall, who rushed for 22 touchdowns in two seasons at Illinois. "It's something to move forward on."
None of this is to suggest the Steelers are disappointed in the pace of Mendenhall's development or that he has not progressed quickly enough to somehow alter their plans for him when the regular season begins.
Rather, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said Mendenhall, the 21st overall pick in the draft, has been everything the team hoped and more.
"He's violent running down there," Arians said. "He made the one guy miss and he ran over the safety. There's going to be one of those guys you have to take care of yourself, and he's starting to understand that and get yards."
Then Arians added, "It's nice to not have to throw him into the fire. He can go bits and pieces until we have to [use him].
"I have no problems using him in any phase right now, whether it's first-and-10, short-yardage, goal-line or third-down. But we're still two weeks away. He'll find his actual role."
There are several possibilities.
The most intriguing involves a same-backfield pairing with Parker, a two-back formation that Arians has said he would like to use. Another option would be to utilize Mendenhall, who is 6 feet, 225 pounds, in short-yardage situations.
It is unlikely, however, that he will be used as a third-down back, a role that will be filled by newcomer Mewelde Moore, who was signed in free agency from the Minnesota Vikings.
No matter the role, though, Mendenhall is beginning to excite his teammates.
"His feet ... he has very, very quick feet," said fullback Carey Davis. "For a bigger guy, you wouldn't expect that from him. He's able to get in and out of holes and make cuts that some people may not see.
"But maybe he's a little tentative, just because things are moving so fast when you're trying to learn things. When it's new to you, you kind of hesitate a little trying to make everything right."
Little by little, Mendenhall said he is starting to understand.
"It's been what you expected, but getting through it is a different story," he said. "You hear about how difficult it is, but it's different when you play out there. It's getting accustomed to everything and gaining experience."
Some of it, he will have to do on his own.
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published August 20, 2008 4:00 AM