On the Steelers: Running backs always available
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The loss of Frank Summers to the San Diego Chargers and the possible loss of free agent Mewelde Moore shines a light on the Steelers halfback position.
They are down to just three -- workhorse Rashard Mendenhall and two young backs, Isaac Redman and Jonathan Dwyer (they also signed former Kansas State back James Johnson recently to a futures contract). But then, you can find a good back almost anywhere, and the Steelers have been proof of that for 30 years. Runners might not be easy to keep for a long time because of injuries and age and how it can sap the talent right out of a good back, such as what happened to Once Fast Willie Parker, but finding them is not difficult.
We are not speaking about great running backs, those like Jim Brown and, yes, O.J. Simpson, but merely good ones. Tom Donahoe, former Steelers director of football operations, famously said once that wide receivers were a dime a dozen and he, too, was not talking about the great ones. He meant good, solid, every-day wide receivers. You can almost put running backs in that category as well.
Take the Steelers. Can anyone remember when they did not have a good running back for a long period, two or three years? Since the 1970s, they have not gone long at all without a quality NFL running back and their performance through the years shows that. They have had some better than others, like Hall of Famer Franco Harris and Hall of Fame finalist Jerome Bettis, but they've never lined up with bad running backs.
You could argue that in the late 1980s and early '90s they were a little confused about the position. They drafted Tim Worley on the first round in 1989 and Merril Hoge on the 11th in 1987 and their philosophy was so messed up on offense that often they misused both. And then Worley pursued the illegal substance path and that was that for him.
Hoge was a good back on some bad teams. Another in that category was Frank Pollard in the early to mid-1980s. Pollard was a good back on many mediocre teams and practically salvaged the Steelers bread-and-butter running game after Harris left and Walter Abercrombie did not live up to expectations.
Between Harris and Mendenhall, the Steelers best running backs came almost as an afterthought. Pollard (1980) and Hoge were drafted in the 11th round. Barry Foster was drafted in the fifth round in 1990. Earnest Jackson was picked up in a trade for virtually nothing. Same with Jerome Bettis. John L. Williams was signed for a song as a free agent. Willie Parker was undrafted as was fullback Dan Kreider.
Between Harris and Mendenhall, the Steelers drafted three backs on the first round and none reached 1,000 yards rushing -- Greg Hawthorne (1979), Walter Abercrombie (1982) and Worley (1989). Hawthorne and Worley were relative busts.
Mendenhall has proven worthy of a No. 1 pick, but he does not have the look of a great back, merely a good one. Redman is another undrafted back who has been more than productive when the Steelers allow him to run. Redman looks a little like Pollard, bull-running, straight-ahead backs who will get you more yards than you think they should.
The Steelers have had other backs come and go, including one who earned a Super Bowl ring with them as a practice squad player in 2008 and another as a productive member of the Green Bay Packers the past season, John Kuhn. The Steelers released him, another undrafted running back.
Since 1970, when the NFL merged with the AFL, the Steelers have more yards rushing than any other team -- 87,624. The Cowboys are second, 5,000 yards behind. The Steelers also have more yards rushing than any other team since 1992, when Bill Cowher took over and rediscovered their running game. And even with the presence for most of the past decade of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers still rank third in this century in rushing yards with 22,884, a mere 502 behind leader Denver.
Some Steelers already are talking about how to stay in shape and keep their skills sharp during an extended lockout by owners. It would be one thing for a lockout to last a few months, quite another for it to last through August.
Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger have discussed having some minicamps on their own for the quarterbacks and receivers in the spring.
"Ben and I discussed it. He talked about getting together with the wide receivers," Ward said.
They suggested meeting at different spots -- all gathering in Pittsburgh and then all gathering in the hometown of each receiver for various workouts. Ward said no plans were made, just discussed. But if the spring drills known as OTAs are affected, the players want to do something.
"We have to," Ward said. "It's more for the younger guys. They won't have any workout programs. A lot of those guys have been going since the combine last year, training hard and then going 28 weeks of football."
Whatever the players manage to do if there is an extended lockout will not match what happened during the last work stoppage of 1987. The players struck after the first two games of the regular season and there was great animosity as the NFL planned to continue games with "replacement" or "scab" players, depending on your point of view.
It became quite heated and sometimes physical in some parts of the country, including cross-state in Philadelphia. It never got bad in Pittsburgh -- one reason because the Steelers smartly moved their replacement training camp to Johnstown. Also, quietly, Dan Rooney slipped Tunch Ilkin a key to the grass practice field outside Three Rivers Stadium. Ilkin, the team's starting right tackle and player rep, was told by Rooney to keep the players together and practice and not tell anyone about it.
It would be nice to say it worked and they went on to a great season after their replacement players went 2-1 during the strike games. The Steelers did win their first game back, against Cincinnati. They went on to lose five of their next nine to finish 8-7 and miss the playoffs.
First Published February 20, 2011 12:00 am