Steelers' Willie Parker could be playing chicken with 'Curse of 370' this season
Barry Foster carried the Steelers on his back in 1992. He ran a team-record 390 times for a team-record 1,690 yards. He added 36 receptions to his offensive total.
Then his wheels came off. A badly sprained left ankle that eventually required surgery helped more than cut his yardage in half in 1993, when he ran 177 times for 711 yards. In 1994, he had 851 yards. In 1995, he was out of the league at age 26.
Yesterday, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin made a promise about Willie Parker at his news conference that challenged the "Curse of 370," the very reason many believe Foster broke down.
"We're going to ride Willie until the wheels come off," Tomlin declared. "He's game for that, he's in great physical condition, he wants the ball, he's a competitor and he's showing he's capable of doing that."
Uh-oh. For the true believers, if Parker hits 370 carries this season, his wheels will come off and he will never be as good a runner again. This is not anecdotal, like the "Curse of the Bambino." There is documented evidence that if a runner carries 370 times a season, including the postseason, nothing but bad things happen to him.
Researchers at Football Outsiders, an independent Web site based in Framingham, Mass., dedicated to following the NFL, have documented the phenomenon for several years. They have produced an impressive list of those backs who carried 370 times in one season and then hit a wall.
They define the "Curse of 370" thusly:
"A running back with 370 or more carries during the regular season will usually suffer either a major injury or loss of effectiveness the following year, unless he is named Eric Dickerson."
Among the documented post-370 failures that Football Outsiders documents are such recent examples as Terrell Davis, Eddie George, Curtis Martin, Jamal Lewis, Ricky Williams and Natrone Means, and such luminaries of the past as Hall of Famer Earl Campbell.
Parker carried 337 times last season, fourth most in Steelers history, for 1,494 yards. He has 50 carries this season, for 235 yards. That's a pace of 400 carries.
Could Parker join the list of cursed rushers or, if he reaches the magic number of 370, could he join Dickerson, a Hall of Famer who is among the few who thumbed their noses at the curse?
Tomlin believes the more Parker carries, the better he becomes. Tomlin plans to use him much the way Bill Cowher used Foster in his first season as Steelers coach -- as often as possible.
"He's getting better with each carry as these games go on, and I'm starting to realize that about him. He's a rhythm runner," Tomlin said. "So we're going to feed him. We're not going to make any bones about that."
Feed him to the wolves, curse believers claim. Tomlin wasn't asked about any curses at his news conference yesterday, and it's obvious he does not believe in them. He came to the Steelers professing his belief in a two-back system but seems to have adjusted that outlook. Najeh Davenport, Parker's backup, has 14 carries for 89 yards and has been used mainly on third downs and in mop-up time in routs of Cleveland and Buffalo.
Fullback Carey Davis is third on the team with four carries.
"We're going to play some people, but Willie Parker is our feature runner and that's no secret," Tomlin said. "When he needs a blow, he's going to get a blow; when he doesn't, he won't.
"Najeh has been kind of our third-down feature back. He's been our closer. Najeh has a significant number of carries here these first two weeks. He had six carries the other day; Carey Davis had a carry. So we're spreading the ball around, but we're going to ride with Willie Parker because we recognize what he is."
So, too, was the thinking in Seattle when Shaun Alexander ran 370 times to lead the NFL with 1,880 yards rushing in 2005, a 5.1-yard average per carry. In the third game of 2006, his foot was broken and he ran for 896 yards and a 3.6-yard average per carry. Through two games this season, he has 175 yards and a 3.9-yard average per carry.
Many curse observers are also watching Larry Johnson this season. He ran an NFL-record 416 times in the 2006 regular season for 1,789 yards. The Kansas City Chiefs rewarded the former Penn State back with a new contract Aug. 21 -- six years, $45 million, including $19 million in guaranteed money. It's the richest contract in Chiefs history.
Through two games, Johnson has 98 yards on 26 carries, tied for 29th in the NFL.
First Published September 19, 2007 12:00 am