Cook: Rushing Parker into exhibitions unwise

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It was nice to read the Post-Gazette story about Willie Parker early in the week. Parker, citing a sense of obligation to his teammates, said he wanted to play in the exhibition game at Washington tonight. That's good. He's a team man, through and through. But Parker also said he didn't think the Steelers' coaches would let him play. That was better. There's no need to use him tonight, not with him just getting over an inflamed knee problem, not with two more exhibition games before the season opener in Cleveland Sept. 9, and, most of all, not with him being the most indispensable Steeler not named Ben Roethlisberger.

That's why it wasn't so nice to read the story about Parker on these pages yesterday. Coach Mike Tomlin announced Parker would play with the other starters against the Redskins, perhaps significantly. "We have to get Willie P. going."

Are you thinking what I'm thinking?

Why?

Really, why rush Fast Willie?

It's pretty obvious Parker is the one player -- other than Big Ben, of course -- the Steelers can't afford to lose. Have you watched backups Najeh Davenport and Kevan Barlow in the exhibition games? I know you're excited about Carey Davis and Gary Russell, but here's a word of advice: Easy. Long shots who tear it up in the early preseason games against second- and third-teamers hardly ever turn out to be the real deal.

I know what you're going to say:

Parker was one of those long shots not long ago ...

You're right, but it's hard to believe the Steelers could be so lucky again.

Don't be greedy.

Be thankful they have Parker and don't ask for another miracle.

What's important is that Parker makes it through the preseason healthy. Although it's true that football is a brutal game and players are going to get hurt no matter how cautious you are, playing him tonight is taking an unnecessary risk. It's different with Roethlisberger. He has to play into the second quarter -- maybe even the whole first half -- and again in the home exhibition game against the Philadelphia Eagles Aug. 26. He needs to get his timing down with his receivers. He needs to get comfortable with his no-huddle offense and some of the other nuances added by new offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

A star running back doesn't need that much work to be ready. Parker certainly has proved he needs very little. In the 2005 preseason, when he suddenly and unexpectedly found himself as the starting halfback because of injuries to Duce Staley and Jerome Bettis, he had just one carry in the third exhibition game -- wouldn't you know it went for 51 yards? -- and didn't play in the final one. It didn't hurt him in the regular-season opener; he ran for 161 yards and a touchdown in a win against the Tennessee Titans. Last preseason was similar. Parker, established as a top player after a 1,202-yard season and his 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL, played one series in the third exhibition game and didn't play in the final one. His preseason body of work: seven carries. Again, it didn't hurt him much; he ran for 115 yards in the opening win against the Miami Dolphins.

That's the way it works with great running backs. It didn't hurt the San Diego Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson that he missed the exhibition games last season. He ran for 1,815 yards and 28 touchdowns and was the NFL's MVP. It won't hurt the Kansas City Chiefs' Larry Johnson that he has been a contract holdout this summer after he had an NFL-record 416 carries for 1,789 yards last season. If anything, it will help him be fresh for the season.

So it should be for Parker.

Here's hoping Tomlin changes his mind about using Parker tonight. That's unlikely, so hope for the next best thing: That Parker plays no more than one series -- a couple of carries, perhaps -- and doesn't aggravate that knee problem.

The same next week against the Eagles.

Then, Parker shouldn't play in the final exhibition game against the Carolina Panthers Aug. 30.

As for that admirable commitment to his teammates? Parker shouldn't lose much sleep these nights worrying about it. His teammates understand his importance to the Steelers' success. They know they need him in Cleveland next month, not in Washington tonight. Arians has talked of using Parker even more than last season when he had 337 carries for 1,494 yards. He has talked of playing him on third downs.

When you're going to give a guy that much work in September and beyond, the last thing you want to do is waste carries in August.

TODAY

Game: Preseason Game 3. Steelers at Redskins, 8 p.m.

TV/radio: KDKA, FSN Pittsburgh/WDVE-FM (102.5).


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com .


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