Bob Smizik: Parker is not the Steelers' No. 1 problem
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An abundance of criticism has been directed at the Steelers this season, and understandably so considering their 7-8 record after winning the Super Bowl.
Somewhat strangely, though, that criticism has come to include the running back position. It's strange because running back would appear to be one of the team's strengths. Willie Parker is in his second year as a starter. He has run for 1,360 yards, the fourth-best season in Steelers history. If he runs for 72 yards Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, he'll own the third-best season in franchise history. What's more, he is sixth in the NFL in rushing and third in the AFC.
What's not to like about that?
It's the feast-or-famine approach that Parker brings to the Steelers' offense that spurs criticism. One week, he's running for 213 yards, the next week for 46. He has had two 200-yard games, one in which he set the team's all-time record. But he also has had games of 20, 26 and 49 yards. He doesn't consistently move the sticks like his predecessor, Jerome Bettis, did.
It is this lack of consistency, that his critics -- and this column has been one of them -- insist is Parker's drawback and, because he plays for a team that keys its success on controlling the ball, his downfall.
Here are some other numbers that might prove interesting in this discussion: 134, 8, 133, 39, 128, 42. Those figures represent the best and worst games for Bettis in 2000, his last great season with the Steelers.
Inconsistency does not belong solely to Parker.
That's not to say he is a Bettis is terms of consistency. He is not. It is to show few backs continually churn out one good game after another.
Bill Cowher, who may or may not be determining who will be the Steelers' lead running back in 2007, has no problem with Parker. Asked at his news conference yesterday about whether Parker's style fit the ball-control offense he has long adhered to, Cowher said, "I think he's a good back. I don't know if there's a prototype back you need for this offense. I don't look at that as being the issue. If you're going to look at this year and reflect, it still comes back to turning the ball over."
The main argument in favor of Parker continuing as the Steelers' lead runner is -- duh! -- they won the Super Bowl with him in that role.
Sure, Bettis was there to help. But Bettis' role in the Steelers' 2006 season is somewhat overrated. Yes, he was a big contributor, but nowhere near what Parker was. Parker ran for 1,202 yards, Bettis for 368. Much of Bettis' yardage came in the second half when he was on the field as the power back who could consistently move the sticks. It was Parker who was on the field most of the time in the first half when the Steelers were assuming those leads they could protect with conservative play in the second half.
One of the positives that Bettis brought to the team was the ability to spell Parker at various points in the game. Parker carried 255 times last season. He already has run 300 times this season. Najeh Davenport has performed adequately as Parker's backup, but he is not Bettis and not the answer in 2007.
"You do need to monitor him [Parker]," Cowher said, "and I think we were able to do that somewhat this season.''
But not enough. Parker is 5 feet 10, 209 pounds, and it's asking a lot of him to carry 300 times in a season. The only backs in Steelers history to do that are Bettis (four times), Franco Harris (twice), and Barry Foster (once). All were considerably bigger than Parker.
Parker's carries need to be reduced, which makes finding a suitable backup an offseason priority. The Steelers thought they had such a player in Duce Staley, but Cowher and his staff misjudged his ability. He showed in training camp he could not handle the job, and Davenport was brought in after the first game. Generally speaking, players available at that point in the season are not ideal replacements.
"I do believe you need more than one back in this business if you're going to run the football and do it through a 16-game schedule," Cowher said.
Bettis was the model guy in support of Parker. He was a future Hall of Famer, but one who was willing to accept a subordinate role at the end of his career. Finding someone so ideally suited to back up Parker will be extremely difficult, if not impossible.
If such a player can't be found, the Steelers will have to struggle along with a fourth-year running back who already is one of the best in franchise history and a key performer in their Super Bowl season. Clearly, this team has larger problems than at running back.
First Published December 27, 2006 12:00 am