After the Steelers selected Rasheed Mendenhall with the 23rd pick of the 2008 NFL draft, the Tribune Review’s John Harris was the first to proclaim:
“The clock on Parker's career with the Steelers is now officially ticking toward its inevitable conclusion.”
Given that Parker is coming off a major injury in a league where running backs seem less and less durable, there’s a certain ring of truth in Harris ominous words.
But Parker is having none of that, and has vowed to take Mendehall under his wing. This is the right thing to do, for several reasons.
First, it shows that Parker is a good man. Being a good man might not bring the Steelers a Super Bowl, but it’s a quality that should earn Parker praise.
Second, Parker’s embrace of his newly found mentor role is good for the team. Locker room cohesion might be an intangible, but its importance should never be underestimated. Both Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney have been on the record stating that while the Cowher era might have had more talented teams, the 2005 Super Bowl Champion edition was the closest.
If you’ll remember, that was the team that won eight ‘must win’ games in a row, including three playoff road wins. That kind of streak only happens if the guys in the trenches are certain that their buddies have their backs.
Finally, Parker’s attitude is also very much in his own self interest. Durability is one factor that separates good from great running backs. There’s a lot of research to show that the wheels of a running back start to fall of after he’s run for more than 350 carries in a season.
For the record, Parker carried the ball 337 times in 2006 and 320 times in 2007. He very well may have surpassed his 2006 total had he not gotten hurt in week 16.
OK. 350 holds no mystical value, and assuming he bounces back from his current injury, Parker’s natural shelf-life might be a little longer than the average running back by virtue of the fact that he played so little in college. But that will only come to fruition if he has someone who can share the load with him.
The Steelers’ luck with first round running backs is checkered. They hit the jackpot with Franco Harris. Greg Hawthorne, Walter Abercrombie disappointed, and Tim Worley chose to sniff his signing bonus up his nose. Mendenhall arrives with no guarantees.
But Rashard Mendenhall's very presence has the potential to extend Willie Parker’s career. For that to happen, Mendenhall has to make and impact in the pros. That’s more likely now that he’s under Willie Parker’s tutelage.