The headline on the Yahoo.com story fairly screamed.
Fast Willie Looks Slow, Out Of Place
The article quoted two anonymous NFL scouts, who singled out Willie Parker -- not the offensive line -- for the Steelers' run-game problems in their victory against the Tennessee Titans last week.
"Pretty obvious. [Parker] dances too much, no burst, doesn't even read the holes very well," one scout said.
"The line isn't good, but it's not that bad, either. I don't know if [Rashard] Mendenhall is any better than Parker, but he can't be much worse," the other said.
And they say the media overreacts and is too quick to judge.
That's crazy talk after just one game. It's too soon to bury Parker or, for that matter, the offensive line. At least that's what Parker and I think. That smile he said he had on his face when he reported back to work yesterday at the team's South Side compound? The scouts' assessments knocked it right off.
"I haven't lost nothin'," Parker growled. "I know what I can do."
More than his 13-carry, 19-yard game against the Titans, certainly.
"We kind of stunk it up; I know that," Parker said. "But I know that game will be just a [distant] memory down the road. We're going to be all right."
It wasn't just Parker who took heavy criticism. When your team runs for 36 yards, there's plenty of blame to go around. The offensive linemen came in for their share. "Of course," tackle Max Starks said. "We're used to that."
Parker said he won't allow the linemen to get down on themselves. First thing yesterday, he made sure to get them together and told them they and he won't be defined by the Tennessee game.
"I just wanted to let them know I really care about them and believe in them," Parker said. "We just all have to be accountable to one another. I told them, 'We've got to get this show on the road. We've got to be the talk of the town.'
"We've got to get the running game fixed early and get it right. We've got one of the best quarterbacks in the league. If we get the running game going, that will make him even better."
Later, Parker told the media to do what the two scouts did and pile on him, not his linemen.
"If you want to point fingers at the run game, always start with me, first and foremost. I'm the running back. I have to make things happen back there. There were places to run [against the Titans]. I just wasn't hitting the holes."
Smart man, Parker.
That's Football 101: Be good to the big guys and they'll be good to you.
"It meant a lot," tackle Willie Colon said. "He told us he wasn't as sharp as he could have been the other night. We told him it wasn't just him and it wasn't just us. It was all of us. If we all put our hands in the pile, we'll get the job done right."
I'm more worried about Parker's confidence than his blockers'. I'm more concerned about his mindset than his burst or his ability to still hit the holes. "He's one of those guys who, when his mind is clear, he's at his best," Colon said.
It's hard to say that's the case with Parker now. The Steelers didn't do a contract extension with him this summer and he will be a free agent at the end of the season. Some players use that as motivation to have a big year. Others take it personally, feel unappreciated and lose their swagger. For the team's sake, Parker had better be among that first group. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin knows that. That's why he made it a point before the Tennessee game to say, "Willie Parker's our runner."
For his part, Parker insisted his mind is right.
"All I have to do is play football. Everything else will take care of itself."
There are three reasons to think Parker and the running game will be better against the Chicago Bears Sunday.
One, Parker's playing time against the Titans was his first significant action since last season. He missed three exhibition games this summer and had just four carries in the other. "I can't say I wasn't ready," he said. "I just wasn't used to being hit. I didn't feel as comfortable as I normally do."
Two, the Bears' defense won't be as stout as the Titans', especially without linebackers Brian Urlacher and Pisa Tinoisamoa. Urlacher is out for the season after dislocating his right wrist against the Green Bay Packers Sunday night, and Tinoisamoa won't play because of a right knee sprain.
And three, well, Colon explained it best. "Willie is angry. His urgency is pretty high right now. He sees that people are looking away from him a little [as one of the NFL's top backs]. That really bothers him because he's such a great competitor. He knows he's got to earn that respect again."
Said Parker, simply: "I'm excited about the game this week."
For the chance for the Steelers to go to 2-0.
For the opportunity to take a little heat off his blockers.
And, yes, you bet, for the sheer thrill of shutting up his critics.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .