Make sure you read that title twice. I'm taking a stab at this primarily because there will continue to be no major NFL news until June 3rd when oral arguments are heard in a St. Louis courtroom.
Also worth noting up front is the fact that I am like the rest of you -- I don't think the Pittsburgh Steelers will show any real interest or put any substantive thought into bringing back Willie Parker; I do however believe that it wouldn't be a terrible idea to invite him to training camp (assuming there is one). And finally, I'll go on the record to say that if Parker does get an opportunity to make a roster in 2011, he will exceed expectations. Considering there are no expectations for Parker at this stage in his career, that might not be saying much. But I do think if he can make his way to camp with the right team, he will find a way to stick and conribute with the occasional carry in 2011.
A couple quick thoughts on why I see no harm in the Steelers bringing Parker to camp this year.
- First, what's the harm? At this stage in his career, Parker is looking for an opportunity to make a team, not sign a big contract. Obviously it would require the same level of financial commitment as it would to bring in any old undrafted free agent rookie that faces an uphill battle to make it through camp.
- Is it too much of a stretch to say that Parker's presence would be uplifting while also serving as a stark reminder to young and old players alike that fortunes can change in a heartbeat in this league, so best not take anything for granted? I don't think so.
- I say that partly because Parker didn't burn any real bridges with the organization or his former teammates. At least not that I know of. In other words, his presence wouldn't be viewed as a distraction by guys that Parker had alienated himself from at the end of his tenure with the Steelers.
Nothing too controversial there, but what about the fact that there doesn't appear to be any real niche on the RB depth chart for Parker to occupy? Well, it's hard to argue that the Steelers are in need of too much added depth or versatility at the position. Rashard Mendenhall obviously has established himself as a legitimate No. 1 workhorse back; Isaac Redman was adept in short-yardage situations and proved he can pass-block, catch the ball out of the backfield and fit in nicely within the team concept; Jonathan Dwyer is eagerly awaiting the chance to see the field; and either Mewelde Moore or Baron Batch look like solid candidates to play on third down.
All told, the Steelers don't appear to be lacking bodies at RB. But what happens if Mendenhall or Redman suffers an injury?
For those who believe that Parker has never, and will never, be the same type of explosive back since he broke his leg in Week 16 of the 2007 season, a year in which his rushing title dreams were dashed when he broke his fibula in the opening moments of the Steelers' easy win over the Rams. True, Fast Willie probably said goodbye forever to his world-class speed on that unfortunate Thursday evening. But it wasn't just recovering from the broken leg that set him back so noticeably the following season in '08. Parker also injured his knee late in the Steelers' atrocious 15-6 loss to the Eagles early in the year. A freak accident in which he stepped in a pothole during practice re-aggravated the injury in October. He also dealt with a torn labrum later in the SB season, an injury that did not require surgery. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, Parker was hampered by a lingering toe turf injury for much of the 2009 season, a typically crippling malady that prematurely derailed the career of Jack Lambert and countless others.
That's a lot to overcome -- perhaps too much -- but don't point to the broken leg in December of '07 as the beginning of the end. Parker was hardly dominant in the 11 games he played in '08. But who could have been running behind that offensive line? The fact that he averaged 3.8 yards per pop in his 210 carries is fairly impressive actually. Don't forget, against a tired Chargers defense in the divisional round of the playoffs, Parker's explosiveness and speed to the edge reemerged. He made firm and decisive cuts en route to a 27-carry, 146-yard and two touchdown performance.
Since helping the Steelers win Lombardi No. 6, Parker has carried the ball a grand total of 98 times, all during his final season with the Steelers in '09. 52 of those carries came before the sixth game of the season in mid-October. He had zero rushing attempts last season in Washington.
Translation: the man has had plenty of time to finally get healthy.
And it's not as if he's had to recover from many years of absorbing bone-crunching hits. Parker accumulated very little wear and tear during his college career at North Carolina, and his 1,253 regular season career carries is nearly 1900 fewer than LaDainian Tomlinson's career total of 3,099 and nearly 1,000 fewer than Clinton Porti's 2,230 career carries. Parker's total is also just a handful more than the total of 25-year old Adrian Peterson (1,198), and fewer than Cedric Benson (1,256), Julio Jones (1,280), Frank Gore (1,371) and Willis McGahee (1,541) to name but a few of the active backs. There's just no reason to necessarily categorize him in the same class of backs who have taken a beating physically for a prolonged period of years.
Speaking of which, Rashard Mendenhall might not be able to handle such a huge workload this season. His 324 carries last season were the 123rd most in a single-season in league history, and three more than Parker's total of 321 in '07. Mendenhall had 61 postseason carries last season though giving him 385 on the year. If you're a believer in the 'Curse of 370' then you might be concerned that Mendenhall's in for a less productive season in 2011. Hopefully not, but whether he averages 5 yards per carry or 3.5, I sure hope Mendenhall's carries are limited to the low 300 range at the very most this coming season.
So, in conclusion, again I'll say that I don't think it's going to happen -- Willie Parker's days in Pittsburgh have probably come and gone. But were the Steelers to invite him to training camp, I would support the decision wholeheartedly. From where I'm sitting, it'd be just as cost-effective to sign Parker for a one-year deal at the veteran minimum as it would be to re-sign free agent Mewelde Moore to a two or three year deal at what I imagine would be around $800-$1.1 million per season.The Steelers could then use some combination of Parker, Isaac Redman and Baron Batch as your third-down backs, with Redman handling short-yardage situations and the trio of Redman/Parker/Dwyer competing for the infrequent series to give Mendenhall a rest.
If he looks fresh in camp, great, you've got yourself an experienced change of pace back to spell Mendenhall throughout the year, insure against an injury to any of the RBs, and play on the infrequent passing down (Parker was a plenty adept pass blocker). If he looks slow and not worthy of a precious roster spot during camp, so be it. No harm no foul.