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Pittsburgh Steelers All-Time, All-Rookie Team: Part 2

Time to take a look at the Steelers all-time best rookie Running Backs.

Oakland Raiders v Pittsburgh Steelers
Freight train, coming your way...

This is part 2 of a series on the Steelers All Time All Rookie team, to get us through the dead zone between the draft and the preseason. Here’s how it will work: I’ll include an introduction to account for some players you may expect to see, but who didn’t make the cut. Then I’ll list starters, backups, and others worth consideration — followed with a poll for Steelers Nation to weigh in.

The apologia for the sequence appears in the first article (here), but here are the ground rules:

The Ground Rules:

1 — I’m looking at the entire history of the Steelers/”Pirates.”
2 — The player must have begun his career with Pittsburgh.
3 — Only the rookie year will factor in; a great career is unnecessary.
4 — The poll and the comments section are open — have at it.

For past essays:

Part 1: Quarterbacks

With that in mind, here’s part two of the mixed-multitude of the Steelers all time All Rookie team — position group by position group.


Part 2: Running Backs

I love these classic newspaper stories. Seriously, did a six year old write that headline?

With the Steelers illustrious rushing history, narrowing down the list to a handful of rookies is hard. But it turns out a lot of familiar names just don’t qualify. Three Hall of Famers started their careers elsewhere: Jerome Bettis with the Rams, John Henry Johnson with the 49ers, and Marion Motley with the Browns (and Motley never really played running back in Pittsburgh either). So did 80s runner Ernest Jackson, who was initially a Charger. Frenchy Fuqua may get an assist for the Immaculate Reception (and his style), but he was originally a Giant. He doesn’t qualify for this list.

Meanwhile, Walter Abercrombie, Rashard Mendenhall, Rocky Bleier, Barry Foster, Frank Pollard, James Conner, Merril Hoge, Willie Parker, Jon Dwyer, and Amos Zeoroue combined for 830 yards as rookies. Three players listed below topped that number by themselves.

Finally, since his days may be numbered, I want to put a gold star on Jaylen Samuels for his herculean effort against the eventual champion Patriots in 2018, where he rushed for 143 yards in a 17-10 upset — the only 100 yard game of his entire career, including high school and college. That’s nowhere near enough to qualify for a team like this, but it’s worth remembering for a moment.


Starter:

Franco Harris (1972)

Pittsburgh Steelers
The only problem with the Franco statue at Pittsburgh Airport is that they left his helmet on.

1055 yards rushing
11 touchdowns
AP NFL Rookie of the Year
Pro Bowl
Greatest play in NFL history

Franco is still the only Steelers rookie to rush for 1000 yards in a season (which he accomplished in a 14-game season back in 1972). He was also the NFL Rookie of the Year that season, and authored the play considered by most as the greatest play in NFL history, with his game-winning Immaculate Reception to beat the Oakland Raiders in the Divisional Playoffs.

As an historical note, this was the first touchdown any Steelers player had ever scored in a post-season game in the team’s history, and it was sealed the Steelers’ first ever post-season victory in team history. In fact, the team had never actually qualified for the playoffs before this game (their only prior post-season contest had been an unscheduled tie-breaker in 1947, which they lost 21-0). Once they drafted Franco, they made the postseason eight straight years, won four titles, and were championship contenders every season of his career.

That’s what a game-changer looks like.


Backups:

Byron “Whizzer” White (1938)

I don’t know why, but I always see a young Bob Dylan when I look at Whizzer White

567 rushing yards (#1 in NFL)
655 yards from scrimmage (#1 in NFL)
Longest run in NFL that season (79 yards)
Most rushes (and touches) in NFL
First team All Pro

Future Supreme Court Justice Byron “Whizzer” White lead the league in rushing and yards from scrimmage during his rookie season. In a much less specialized era, White also led the team in passing, touchdowns, and interceptions thrown (oops), while also playing linebacker on defense.

He only played one season in Pittsburgh (leaving on a Rhodes Scholarship in 1939), but White was named to the league’s Team of the ‘40s after two years in Detroit, and eventually landed in the Hall of Fame.


“Bullet” Bill Dudley (1943)

Dudley didn’t make the Pro Bowl or All Pro team in 1946, the same year he was NFL MVP. I have many questions about this.

696 rushing yards (#1 in NFL)
5 rushing touchdowns (#3 in NFL)
#1 in NFL in kick/punt returns and return yards
13.6 yard average on punt returns
27.1 yard average on kickoff returns (with 1 touchdown)
1349 all purpose yards (#1 in NFL)
3 interceptions on defense
Pro Bowl and First Team All Pro

It’s a shame Bill Dudley isn’t better known – if you look at him in the context of his era, he was an absolute rock star. Look at this guy. He’d go on to be NFL MVP in 1946, after leading the NFL in rushing, interceptions, fumble recoveries, and punt returns, while also serving as the Steelers kicker, punter, and primary passer. What!?

In 1942, Dudley’s 696 rushing yards were the 10th highest total in league history, and remained the Steelers team record for eight years. And his 1349 all purpose yards were an NFL record. And if that weren’t enough, Dudley’s arrival coincided with the first winning record in the history of this franchise. I can’t quite justify putting Franco on the bench for this team, but Dudley is the only player who genuinely gives me pause.


Le’Veon Bell (2013)

Pittsburgh Steelers v Green Bay Packers
Fun Fact: Le’Veon Bell never learned to blow a steam-breath smoke ring.
Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

860 rushing yards (13 games)
8 rushing touchdowns
45 receptions
1259 yards from scrimmage (Steelers record for rookie)

We don’t romanticize Bell’s rookie year for a few reasons (because he turned out to be so much better in future years… because he burned a few bridges on his way out of town… because the team only went 8-8 that season and didn’t even make the playoffs...) but Bell may have been the biggest catalyst to the resurgence of the late 2010s. He missed his first three games in 2013 with an injury (during which the Steelers went 0-3), then returned to power the team to and 8-5 finish, rushing for the second highest rookie total in team history, and setting the still-standing team rookie record in yards from scrimmage.

The next year would be Bell’s best in Pittsburgh, beginning his four-year run as one of the NFL’s best overall players. But his rookie season was really strong. Hard to believe how many people thought the Steelers should have drafted Eddie Lacy instead.


Also considered:

Johnny Lattner (1954)

I know “Golden Boy” was Paul Hornung’s nickname, but doesn’t it look like it should have been Lattner’s?

237 rushing yards, with 5 touchdowns
25 catches, 305 yards, 2 touchdowns
Pro Bowler (as kick returner)

Lattner had been a college football star at Notre Dame, winning the 1953 Heisman, and the 1952 and 1953 Maxwell Awards, before the Steelers drafted him at #7 overall. He was a utility man as a rookie, ranking #5 in the NFL in kickoff return average, as well as #5 in all-purpose yards, and #10 in rushing touchdowns.

After one year in Pittsburgh (seriously, just one!), he enlisted in the Air Force, then tore up his knee playing pickup football and never played in the NFL again. Impossible to know what kind of career he’d have had — a return specialist who never factors on offense, like Desmond Howard? A great all-purpose player, like Gayle Sayers? We’ll never know. That’s just the Steelers luck from those years...


Tim Worley (1989)

Pittsburgh Steelers Tim Worley
Worley had a mediocre career, but man, that’s a good face.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

770 rushing yards (led Steelers)
160 all-purpose yards in two playoff games
Helped Steelers to first postseason appearance in five years

A let-down as a 1st round draft pick — after leading the SEC in rushing and being named consensus All American at Georgia — Worley still led the Steelers with 770 rushing yards in 1989. Paired with Merril Hoge, Bubby Brister, and a young but talented defense, he played a meaningful role in Chuck Noll’s final playoff team, and perhaps the finest coaching job of the emperor’s illustrious career.

Unfortunately, Worley was also often his own worst enemy. He fumbled nine times as a rookie, on only 210 touches, then added fumbles in both playoff games that season as well (for context Le’Veon Bell only fumbled eight times in his entire Steelers career, on 1541 touches). Later, Worley missed the entire 1992 season due to a substance abuse violation, and was out of football by 1995.


Bam Morris (1994)

Steelers Bam Morris
Looking at this shot, I feel like Morris would be the guy they’d cast to play Jerome Bettis in a movie. Like, a vague resemblence, but not quite right. It’s probably the beard.
Photo by George Gojkovich/Getty Images

836 yards rushing
7 rushing touchdowns (#8 in NFL)
1040 yards from scrimmage (led the Steelers)
4.2 yards per carry (#6 in NFL)
Combined with Barry Foster (851 yds) for NFL’s #1 running game

Largely forgotten today, Morris and Barry Foster nearly became the second Steelers duo to both top 1000 yards in the same season during their one year together. The Steelers came one game from the Super Bowl as well. I’m a little stunned that 4.2 yards per carry landed him 6th in the league in that category (among qualified rushers), but here it is.

The Steelers made the Super Bowl the next season, after pairing Morris with former New Orleans Saint, Eric Pegram. Bam was a highlight in that heartbreaker, outrushing Emmitt Smith and the entire Cowboys team in the loss. That was the end for him, though. Drug issues destroyed him, as the Steelers unloaded him just months after the Super Bowl. Those problems also did some damage to Bill Cowher, who’d just jettisoned Worley a few years earlier over similar issues, and kept believing Morris’s claims that he’d cleaned up. In any case, Byron (his given name) bounced around the league for a couple of years before retiring by age 27. He never looked as good as that rookie year.

One last fact worth noting: his older brother Ron Morris played a few years of wide receiver for the Bears in the late 80s, and went by the nickname Boom. Bam and Boom.


Fran Rogel (1950)

I’m sure Rogel was a tough S.O.B. in real life, but this is a baby face if I’ve ever seen one.

418 rushing yards (2nd on Steelers)
722 yards from scrimmage (2nd on Steelers)

Rogel labored on some bad Steelers squads in the 50s, and inspired an eye-roll rhyme about the uninspired playcalling of that era: “hey diddle diddle, Rogel up the middle,” after Walt Keisling started nearly every game with a Rogel run between the tackles. (Offensive coordinators... Have they ever been worth a dime?)

Ultimately, Rogel’s rookie production was overwhelmed by his own teammate, All Pro quarterback Joe Geri, who rushed for team record 705 yards in 1950. He’s worth mentioning, but I couldn’t put him on the All-Time All-Rookie team.


Warren Heller (1934)

Hey look! The bumblebee uniforms!

528 rushing yards (#5 in NFL)
624 yards from scrimmage (#5 in NFL)
511 passing yards (#2 in NFL)

Heller’s 528 rushing yards and 624 yards from scrimmage were both “Pirates” team records, and both clocked in at the 9th highest totals in league history at the time. Since they were both #5 in the league that season, you can assume that 1934 was a HUGE year for new NFL marks. For some context, Heller’s fifth place rushing total was 68 yards behind #4, who was none other than Bronko Nagurski. Of course, this same season, someone named Beattie Feathers rushed for the only 1000+ season until 1947 (on 19 fewer rushing attempts than Hellar’s). The NFL’s wild west era was crazy.

In any case, the 1934 Pirates were a spectacularly bad team. They finished the season at 2-10, being shut out six times and losing by an average of 17.2 to 4.25. This included a 0-6 loss to a team called the St. Louis Gunners, who only existed for three games, and folded with a 1-2 all time record. This was their first ever contest, and their only win.

Heller was one of the few bright spots on that squad, but it should be noted that he also led the league in interceptions thrown. There were only two passers who “qualified” for full season passer rating, according to PFR — Hall of Famer Arnie Herber, and Heller. Which means that Warren Heller’s 27.7 completion percentage was second in the league, as was his 12.5 QBR. AMAZING.


Bennie Snell, Jr. (2019)

NFL: AUG 09 Preseason - Buccaneers at Steelers
Not pictured: NFL history’s greatest mouth guard
Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

426 yards rushing (2nd on Steelers)
Most of his yards coming in 2nd half/4th quarter

I know. Half the fan base just turned on me for this. I’ve never understood why Snell is polarizing, but let me just point out: “also considered” does not mean “made the team.”

In any case, It took Snell half a season to find his way onto the field in 2019, but with Mason Rudolph and Duck Hodges scaring absolutely no one, Snell rushed for 426 yards on a team that had zero right to be competing for a playoff spot, but was. The Steelers went 4-1 in games where Snell logged 10 or more carries, only losing the finale at Baltimore (despite Snell’s 91 yard, 5.1ypc, 1 touchdown effort), and he always seemed at his best late in games, when grinding the clock is most important. And if he hadn’t gotten fumblitis early in year 2, I suspect he’d have had a sophomore year worth discussing, at least a little.

Benny Snell will probably never be a full-on NFL starter (here or elsewhere), but I tend to think he’s the kind of bruiser Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher would both have loved as a complimentary back.


Poll

All Rookie Running Back

This poll is closed

  • 91%
    Franco Harris (1972)
    (644 votes)
  • 0%
    Byron "Whizzer" White (1938)
    (2 votes)
  • 3%
    "Bullet" Bill Dudley (1943)
    (27 votes)
  • 2%
    Le’Veon Bell (2013)
    (20 votes)
  • 0%
    Johnny Lattner (1954)
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Tim Worley (1989)
    (1 vote)
  • 0%
    Bam Morris (1994)
    (7 votes)
  • 0%
    Fran Rogel (1950)
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Warren Heller (1934)
    (0 votes)
  • 0%
    Benny Snell (2019)
    (3 votes)
  • 0%
    Other
    (0 votes)
707 votes total Vote Now

Next up: Wide Receivers