They say it takes three, four, maybe even five years to fairly evaluate an NFL draft class. Running back Rashard Mendenhall and wide receiver Limas Sweed are doing their worst to disprove that. It's almost as if they are trying to prove that the Steelers' 2008 draft class is a bust.
It's bad enough that Sweed -- a second-round pick in '08 -- dropped a touchdown pass in the 23-20 loss Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals. We've come to expect that from him. He has been awful. But it's much worse that Mendenhall -- the first-round choice -- did such a poor job preparing for the game that he was benched by irritated coach Mike Tomlin. This guy is supposed to be a professional? He certainly doesn't look like one.
Mendenhall's actions really are reprehensible. "Rashard wasn't on the details this week," Tomlin said of his decision not to play him on offense. How can that be? How can Mendenhall let his teammates down like that? How can he let himself down?
"It was a bunch of little stuff," Mendenhall said when asked what Tomlin meant.
I'm guessing it was more than that. Certainly, Tomlin didn't consider it to be "little stuff." Coaches rarely call out a player publicly and embarrass him. That's a drastic step.
Shame on Mendenhall.
Is he not smart enough to realize the opportunity he has with the Steelers?
Last week, Tomlin hinted Mendenhall was ready to get more touches. In the loss Sept. 20 at Chicago, Mendenhall had turned a bad flat pass into a 13-yard gain, then ran for 39 yards to set up a touchdown. Those were his two best plays as a pro. They also made you and probably Tomlin think for the first time that maybe the kid has a chance to be pretty good after all.
Then Mendenhall gets benched?
Part of Mendenhall's problem is he doesn't have a veteran running back to guide him, to show him how to prepare and practice, to teach him what it means to be a pro. Starting back Willie Parker had Jerome Bettis, one of the great leaders in Steelers history. Lucky Willie. But Parker, though a great runner at times in his career, isn't much of a leader. Carey Davis was the closest thing to one among the Steelers' running backs, but he was cut this summer when Tomlin decided to go with rookie Frank Summers. Many veterans on the team will tell you that was a mistake, and their argument picked up steam Sunday when Summers was put on the inactive list.
Still, Mendenhall has to find a way to figure it all out. It's nice to think he will learn from this harsh lesson from Tomlin and start taking his well-paid job more seriously. "You always want your coach to feel good about you and have confidence in you," he said. We'll see this week how much Mendenhall wants that. We'll see what he does on the practice field and in the meeting room. We'll know if he has earned Tomlin's trust again Sunday night when the 1-2 Steelers play the San Diego Chargers at Heinz Field in as close to a must-win game in early October that a team can have.
The Steelers desperately need Mendenhall to be successful. There's a good chance Parker will leave as a free agent after the season. If Mendenhall can't justify that No. 1 pick -- not to mention his five-year, $12.55 million contract -- the team will be in a real dilemma.
At least the Steelers have better options than Sweed.
Even before Sunday, rookie Mike Wallace had surpassed Sweed as the No. 3 receiver. Then, Wallace, who looks like a steal as a third-round draft choice, caught everything thrown his way against the Bengals -- seven receptions for 102 yards -- and Sweed dropped the 34-yard touchdown pass that would have given the Steelers a 20-9 lead in the third quarter. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger couldn't have put that ball in a more perfect spot.
Hey, at least Sweed didn't stay down this time and fake an injury the way he did after dropping a touchdown pass in the AFC championship game in January, costing the Steelers an important timeout.
Tomlin should be thankful for small miracles, right?
Not surprisingly, Sweed didn't get back in the game Sunday. Now, I'm wondering if he'll ever get back on the field for the Steelers, barring injuries.
Veteran Shaun McDonald, who was inactive against the Bengals, would be a better choice than Sweed as the No. 4 man against the Chargers. At least he will catch the ball. Tomlin can't count on Sweed to do that. Roethlisberger can't count on him, even though he rushed to him on the sideline after the drop to console him. "To be a professional, you've got to be able to put things behind you," Big Ben said. "I told him I'll come back to him when the time comes. I'm going to have confidence that he's going to make the play the next time he has the chance."
Pardon me for not believing that.
Really, how can anyone have faith in Sweed?
What's most troubling is that Sweed doesn't seem to have a clue that his job could be in jeopardy. "It happened. I hit the ground and the ball bounced out," he said of his latest drop.
That's pretty lame.
Sweed's game is lame.
There really is no reason to think Sweed will do his part to save the '08 draft class.
The Steelers already have cut linebacker Bruce Davis, their No 3 choice in that draft. That leaves Mendenhall, Sweed, offensive tackle Tony Hills (can't get off the inactive list on Sundays), quarterback Dennis Dixon (the No. 3 man) and safety Ryan Mundy (a backup) from the '08 class.
Go ahead, keep telling yourself it takes three, four, maybe even five years to fairly evaluate any group.
Say it enough times and you might believe it.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published September 29, 2009 4:00 AM