After a two fumble performance against the Browns, the Steelers former first round pick and franchise starting running back, has found himself buried at the bottom of the depth chart; possibly for good.
Mike Tomlin has been the topic of ridicule since his two game benching of Jonathan Dwyer for fumbling a handoff against the Raiders in Week 3. Much of that ridicule is based in the fact Dwyer wasn't the only player to fumble in that game, but he was the only one of the fumblers who sat the next game.
Since then, Tomlin has tried other methods to encourage his playmakers to secure the football; bringing the phrase "you fumble, you sit" into existence. Unfortunately for Tomlin, it existed as a punchline, as every back on the roster fumbled at least once since its inception.
Tomlin's methods were viewed as discriminatory towards certain players. Much ado was made about Rashard Mendenhall's status as the Steelers starter, while he was recovering from and ACL injury; and later from an Achilles tendon injury. The coaches were insistent on Mendenhall returning to the top of the depth chart once he was healthy; that no one would lose their job, simply because they got hurt.
This was before Dwyer not only posted the first 100 yard rushing performance of the year for the Steelers, he followed it up with a second 100 yard game. Dwyer exhibited drive, ambition, and resiliency as he repeatedly worked his way up the stat charts for yards after contact. Many felt that he deserved the chance to continue to start, even when Mendenhall returned. The coaches shrugged off that notion, as did Dwyer. When asked about the situation, Dwyer allied himself with the coaches, expressing his opinion that Mendenhall was the unquestioned starter. Dwyer accepted his role, and expressed appreciation for the opportunity and the challenge.
However, many fans and media members disagreed with Dwyer and Tomlin. Mendenhall's two fumble performance against the Browns only increased the volume of their argument. Tomlin's consistency was immediately called into question, using Dwyer as the poster child. Why was one player completely deactivated for two games for one fumble, while other players were allowed opportunities to redeem themselves through extra targets and carries; players like, Mike Wallace, Emmanuel Sanders, Rashard Mendenhall, Isaac Redman, Chris Rainey, Antonio Brown.
To prove to his dissenters, and to his players, that his policies were not intended as suggestions or entertainment; he made the statement of statements when responding to Mendenhall's fumble issues. Tomlin not only benched Mendenhall against the Ravens in week 13, and demoted him to "third-string"; but he also took away Mendenhall's uniform completely. The reports of Mendenhall's inclusion in the inactive list for the important matchup in Batlimore were crystal clear about the nature of his deactivation having nothing to do with an injury.
While Mendenhall's benching can be logically attributed to the Steelers current health situations among their quarterbacks and offensive linemen; Tomlin has left little doubt as to the true reason for Mendenhall's benching. When asked about the situation during an interview on Steelers.com on Tuesday, Tomlin responded: "We don't intend on doing anything differently in terms of Jonathan (Dwyer) being the guy and of course, (Isaac Redman) supplementing him because Red is capable of distinguishing himself in situational football, short yardage. He's a good blitz-pickup guy."
Although, Tomlin hasn't completely bricked Mendenhall in the basement like a cask of Amontillado. "Rashard will get an opportunity to redeem himself, I'm sure, at some point along this journey," Tomlin said. "That's the nature of this thing. There's ebb and flow and opportunities are presented."
In a situation where no other Steelers running back gets hurt or fumbles the ball - or if the ebb and flow regresses to a more typical situation (running backs tend to remain healthy and not fumble on the average carry) - Mendenhall, by Tomlin's decree, doesn't have a reason to play over Dwyer or Redman.
It would take an extremely poor performance or injury, by Redman or Dwyer, for Mendenhall to regain his time on the field. Considering this is the final year of Mendenhall's contract, he may have already played his final game for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Dwyer and Redman are both restricted free agents in 2013, and there's really nothing we're seeing right now to suggest Mendenhall has earned an extension - least of all not when Dwyer was a sixth round draft pick and Redman wasn't drafted.
If the Steelers running backs are able to continue to secure the football, and wins, in Mendenhall's absence, they may just secure his fate as well.