32 Q: How many TDs will Willie Parker score?
Fast fact: From 2006-07, Willie Parker saw his touchdown total decline by 14 (16 in 2006 to 2 in 2007). That represented the second-steepest drop-off of any NFL player, behind the Chiefs' Larry Johnson (15, but he had an excuse; he missed eight games).
One might think such a disparity in touchdown totals might be a matter of luck, and luck tends to even itself out over longer periods of time.
My advice: Don't be fooled.
Sorry to disappoint the Steelers faithful, but these are no longer your run-oriented Steelers -- a staple of the Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis title-winning teams. This is Ben Roethlisberger's team, and no matter how much you clamor for Parker to get the ball, that is not going to change. Mike Tomlin, only the third Steelers coach in the past 39 seasons, knows that the path to a championship rests in "Big Ben's" hands, so the pass-happy offense we saw in 2007 is certain to be the same one we see in 2008.
The statistics tell it all.
In the red zone in 2007, Tomlin's first season as coach, the Steelers threw 78 times and ran 73, hardly a surprising split until you consider that in all game circumstances, the team ran 69 times more than it threw. That's in stark contrast to the numbers in 2006, Bill Cowher's final season; those Steelers ran 85 times and threw 68 in red-zone situations. And it's not like the change proved unsuccessful; the Steelers ranked seventh in the league in red-zone efficiency in 2007 at 58.2 percent (32 scores in 55 possessions), after ranking a middling 15th with a dead-even 50.0 percent rate the season before (28 of 56).
Edge closer to the goal line and the Steelers became even more of a pass-happy offense, with their 62 offensive plays within 10 yards of the opponents' goal line split evenly between passing and running plays (31 apiece).
You might look at that breakdown and think, "Well, you just demonstrated that the Steelers relied more on the run as they neared the end zone," but think traditional football for a moment. It's only natural that a team tends to increase its number of running plays in goal-line situations, so an even split actually goes against the grain. By comparison, even the New England Patriots, who threw 135 times more often than they ran the ball and had the terribly underwhelming Laurence Maroney as their starting running back, ran the ball five more times (55) than they threw it (50) within 10 yards of the end zone.
But this isn't all about the team totals. It's about Parker, and the numbers are stacked pretty handily against him individually, too. Take a look:
Red-zone situations: 45 rushing attempts (63.4 percent of the team's rushing total).
Within 10 yards of the end zone: 16 (51.6).
Another fun fact: Tight end Heath Miller actually drew more targets (17) than Parker had rushing attempts (16) within the 10-yard line.
Speaking of Miller, between him, Matt Spaeth and Jerame Tuman (now in Arizona), the Steelers got 10 touchdowns from their tight ends from within the red zone, four more than they got from their running backs. In the cases of Miller (6-foot-5) and Spaeth (6-foot-7), it's probably a matter of their significant height advantages. But I digress.
Parker's usage makes sense. He might be dubbed "Fast" Willie Parker, but understand the reason for the moniker. He's quick, no doubt, but mostly between the 20s. In other words, Parker is your prototypical "track-star"-type runner, a dominating force in open space. In short-yardage situations, though, he leaves quite a bit to be desired.
Understand that Parker was stuffed at the line 31 times in 2007, fifth-most in the NFL and a whopping 9.7 percent of his total number of rushing attempts. Within the red zone, he either scored or converted a first down seven times in 45 tries (15.6 percent). To put that into perspective, consider that designated "short-yardage" back Najeh Davenport scored or converted a first down in the red zone 17 times on 26 attempts (65.4 percent). NFL rushing touchdowns leader LaDainian Tomlinson succeeded at one of the two on 29 of 55 attempts (52.7 percent), so obviously, Parker's performance was lacking.
That's why it makes sense that the Steelers picked Rashard Mendenhall with their first-round pick in the draft, instead of succumbing to the early run on offensive linemen and over-drafting a potential Faneca replacement. Mendenhall might be only a little bulkier (5-foot-10, 225 pounds) than Parker (5-foot-10, 209) on paper, but he's a much more physical back. Whispers that Mendenhall might step into a lower-profile Bettis role, from Bettis' latter days in Pittsburgh, aren't off-base. There's little doubt the rookie provides more explosiveness in those short-yardage situations. Worst-case scenario, he offers the Steelers just what Davenport did last season.
Besides, Mendenhall serves another important purpose: Taking pressure off Parker, who was worked hard the past two seasons, totaling 715 carries (playoffs included). The Steelers understand Parker can eat up huge chunks of yardage, but in doing that, they can't also expect him to take the beatings a short-yardage back might. He's also not the kind of guy who should be running the ball 21 times a game, as was his workload in 2006-07. You can argue the broken fibula he suffered in Week 16 was a fluke, but one can't help wondering whether it was related to his having been so heavily used.
So back to that question, then: How many touchdowns for Parker?
I don't see any reason he can't break off another 12 20-plus-yard runs, and at least one of those should be good for a score. Let's give him 1½.
I'd also expect a handful more red-zone carries for Parker this season than last, and it boils down to the possibility that Mendenhall needs a few games to get fully acclimated to NFL competition. Let's say Parker gets 50 red-zone carries, 18 within the 10, and simply by virtue of getting those touches he should be good for two. Let's say 2½.
Then there's the matter of receiving touchdowns. Parker has 14 red-zone targets the past two seasons combined, two of those going for scores. No reason he can't manage one.
Total 'em up and that's five; an appropriate number, actually. It's identical to his output in 2005 the last time the Steelers had him in such an ideal role for his skill set.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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