Steelers Hall of Fame RB Franco Harris says he doesn't support rotational running backs system

Mike Coppola

Hall of Fame running back and Steelers legend Franco Harris spoke with Behind The Steel Curtain about the Steelers' run-by-committee approach, the team's extensive injury report, the Immaculate Reception and his recent honor as a Hometown Hall of Famer.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was quick to point out this week running back Jonathan Dwyer had been placed at the top of the position's depth chart heading into the team's Week 13 game at Baltimore.

While that doesn't necessarily mean the end of the run-by-committee approach the Steelers have employed this season, it does indicate Tomlin is closer to giving one player a larger share of the carries.

That decision pleases former Steelers running back Franco Harris, who spoke with Behind The Steel Curtain in wake of his recognition in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and Allstate Insurance's Hometown Hall of Famers - a national program honoring the hometown roots of the sport's greatest players, coaches and contributors.

"I personaly am not in favor of the rotation system," Harris said. "Mentally have to know you're the guy the team is relying on has to produce, If you make a mistake, you don't want to feel you'll be pulled. You live and play in fear of being pulled if something happens. I'm not one to be in favor of that."

That fear and pressure may have been what led to the fumble fiasco at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Week 12. The Steelers' running backs - Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Chris Rainey and Dwyer combined for six fumbles, losing four of them, as the Steelers blew a winnable game 20-14.

"Sometimes you have bad days," Harris said. "Sometimes as individual sometimes as team, that day was a rough day for running backs."

Harris spoke thoughtfully but bluntly, often referring to the Steelers as "we," and clearly was up-to-date on the happenings of the team for whom he played 12 of his 13 NFL seasons.

"When you make a mistake, two things can happen. One, it makes you worry more about it and makes you more unproductive because you're thinking about it, or does it piss you off that you made a mistake and you're going to get in there and try even hard to make things happen.

"That's up to each individual on how they handle an unfortunate or challenging situations."

Harris conceded injuries may have played a part in the Steelers' indecisiveness in listing a starter. Mendenhall has been working his way back after a major knee injury in December of 2011, Redman suffered a concussion in Week 11 and Dwyer missed the Steelers' Week 9 game at the Giants with a quadriceps injury.

Dwyer was also the recipient of an alleged (and inconsistent) policy Tomlin has where players who fumble are benched. Dwyer, the Steelers' leading rusher with 429 yards on 98 carries, was a healthy scratch in Weeks 5 and 6 - the Steelers' two games following a Week 3 loss at Oakland in which Dwyer lost a fumble.

Some of that reason could have been due to the return of Mendenhall, who dressed for the first time in 2012 and racked up 83 total yards and a touchdown in Pittsburgh's 16-14 win over Philadelphia in Week 5. He suffered an Achilles injury after just six carries against Tennessee in Week 6 - a 26-23 Steelers loss.

Dwyer took advantage.

He became the Steelers first running back to rush for 100 yards in a game this season, doing it in back-to-back Steelers wins over Cincinnati and Washington, respectively. He missed the Steelers' Week 9 game against the Giants, and Redman rushed for a team-high 147 yards in a 24-20 win over the Giants.

A tough Chiefs defense in Week 11 stifled the running game and injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, contributing to what has been a punchless ground game over the last two games.

It hasn't been just Roethlisberger or the running backs missing time with injury. Back-up QB Byron Leftwich had two ribs broken in Week 11, leading Charlie Batch - the Steelers' likely starter in Week 13 at Baltimore - into the fold. Wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery also broke two ribs against Baltimore, and all of this while WR Antonio Brown missed everything from the second quarter of Week 9 through the present.

Injuries to left guard Willie Colon and, most recently, Mike Adams have damaged the continuity of Pittsburgh's offensive line, as well as multiple injuries to outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.

This streak of debilitation hasn't been lost on Harris, and he doesn't view it as a problem isolated to this season. Injuries derailed the Steelers' 2011 season as well, as they played a Wild Card playoff game at Denver in which they had only three healthy defensive linemen early in the game.

"One of the things unfortunately the last two three years I cannot believe the injuries for the Steelers," Harris said. "I feel we have more than our share of injuries. It gets so frustrating because you know we have a good team. We know that we have a team that can go all the way. These kinds of setbacks really makes it tough on the team on the coaches, but what can you do? I don't know."

Injuries can be attributed to a variety of things, from a lack of conditioning to genetics to the simple wear-and-tear of a brutally physical game. Rashes of injuries like the Steelers suffered over the last two seasons - with a multitude of key players who have missed time in both 2011 and 2012 like Roethlisberger, Woodley, James Harrison, Maurkice Pouncey, Willie Colon and Casey Hampton - have decimated this team over its past 28 games, leaving onlookers to question the source of it.

"Being old school, sometimes I wonder if they give their bodies a chance to rest," Harris said. "When you hear about their schedules and what they do, do they really have that mental break, do they have that physical break to let their body recuperate to get back into all that heavy working out?

"I'm a big believer in having a weight program, but not sometimes to the extreme that they do now. I think some other things need to be incorporated a lot more for the overall balance of conditioning. And sometimes I think that can contribute to it."

Harris noted his opinion is only that, and that, along with many other opinions, are likely equal factors. He also pointed out former teammate and Hall of Fame member Mike Webster was a "workout fanatic," and he played a long and storied career not mired with injury.

"Is there really one thing," Harris asked rhetorically. "Every person has to find that balance in themselves. One thing I always looked at is I had to have a balance between speed, quickness and strength.

"I lifted all the time but I did't lift to be in the 500 pound club. I lifted to make sure I got in great shape, to take the rigors and abuse of football and get through a season. It couldn't be just lifting all the time for strength."

Harris speaks in such a way he ties everything back to a larger perspective. He concludes statements with rhetorical questions and his words speak more to a broader vision rather than specific plans. He has an enjoyable way of boiling things down simply, which he did with the Steelers' health situation.

"Right now, whatever it is they're doing doesn't seem things are working for these guys."

The combination of his balanced, tri-prong approach to fitness and his elite skill got him inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990. Harris was a key factor in the Steelers' dynasty during the 1970s, and he spoke proudly of those teams, often mentioning the "we" before the "I."

One couldn't blame him, though, for seeing his Hall of Fame induction as the most special moment of his career.

He spoke with a smile through his voice, almost as if he was admitting a guilty pleasure.

"When people said to me, 'Franco you'll be in the Hall of Fame,' I just said, 'well, ok, man, I don't know if anything could really top the decade and career I was able to enjoy during the 70s,'" Harris said with a laugh in his voice.

"What could really top the 70s? I have to admit when I put that Hall of Fame jacket on, that was the greatest moment of all time. It was like all the football history from the beginning was just absorbed into me with that jacket. That's what that meant. It was quite an experience."

The honors keep coming for Harris. He'll be the (obvious) guest of honor Dec. 23 when the team unveils a commemorative plaque honoring the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception - Harris's catch and touchdown run in the 1972 playoffs against Oakland off a deflected pass that gave the Steelers their first franchise playoff victory.

"It's been a lot of fun, and once again it makes us reflect back to the 70s and that year that really began our run. It brings all that together. It's not just about one play, it's about the whole new era for the Steelers."

Harris will be presented with his "Hometown Hall of Famer" plaque during a special ceremony at 1:15 p.m. ET Friday at Rancocas Valley Regional High School in Mt. Holly, N.J., his alma mater. The presentation will be made by Bob Smith, Harris' former quarterback on his high school football team.

"Going back to high school is just fantastic," Harris said. Thanks to the Hall of Fame for putting this program together so we can go back to where our football roots and where it really started. I'm really excited to go back and be a part of this program."

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