There’s No Place Like Home

December 18, 2006

It’s difficult to fathom why a running back with Willie Parker’s credentials creates so much discussion among football fans. Here in the ‘Burgh we’ve grown used to big, physical running backs like Jerome Bettis. We’re more used to seeing guys run over people (remember Bettis and Bear’s linebacker Brian Urlacher last year?) than away from them. I’ve wondered myself if Parker can be “the” guy in the Steeler running game. It often seems he is as likely to lose a yard or two as he is to rip off a big gain. There is also the imbalence of his success at home and on the road. Heading into Sunday’s game against Carolina, Parker had rushed for 1,199 yards. 924 of those came at home and just 275 on the road.
Parker has his backers and detractors but his numbers are piling up into quite a season. He has a mathematical chance to break Barry Foster’s team record for rushing yards in a season. He would need to average 180 yards in each of his last two games and that probably won’t happen but he should easily turn in the third best season in Steelers history needing just a 100 yards in the last two games to do so.
Leaguewide only four backs have more rushing yardage and they are in the high rent neighborhood. LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Frank Gore and Tiki Barber. That’s some pretty good company. Parker even changed his M.O. Sunday when he bolted for 132 yards in Charlotte, his best road perfomance of the year. Or was it? Parker IS a North Carolina native. Hmmm, this home field thing seems to be a theme he just can’t shake. But he is shaking a whole lot of would-be tacklers making believers out of many who had doubted before.
Parker played very little in college. Much of his Steeler career has been a chance to learn as well as star. Last year, even in his record setting Super Bowl performance, he made a lot of mistakes with and without the football. His speed made up for many of those. But now as his reads and blocking continue to improve, Parker is having a pro bowl worthy season. Especially at home. Wherever that home happens to be.

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How many times does Willie Parker have to have nights like he did against the Browns before people start to realize what a fine running back he is? Everytime he has a good game, it’s always a “yeah but” situation. Like: “Yeah, Willie had a good game, but he’s not suited to be a running back for the Steelers.” Come one, people! Jerome Bettis was a fine running back, but the times they are a-changing. Willie Parker’s 223-yard performance against the Browns was not your typical Fast Willie performance. His longest run was for 39 yards. He pounded the ball between the tackles, he picked up the tough yards. (How about that touchdown run?) Is it his fault that he has breakaway speed? If you don’t believe me, you should hear Bill Cowher talk about Willie Parker. The man positively gushes at the mere mention of his name! Cowher says Parker is one of the top backs in the league. Sure, he’s a little biased, but he’s not too far off. The best thing about Willie Parker is the fact that he’s still learning, he stays humble, and he’s unselfish. You’ll probably never see or hear him complaining to the media about needing more carries. He knows he’s a cog in the big wheel that is the Steelers offense. So, don’t worry about the Steelers’ running game. With Willie Parker, the running game is in good hands (Or in this case feet.)

Kudos For Bruce

December 4, 2006

Bruce Gradkowski didn’t exactly fare too well when he returned to Pittsburgh to play against his hometown team this past Sunday. But, the former Seton-LaSalle star showed a lot of Western PA toughness as he quarterbacked the Buccaneers against the Steelers. Gradkowski was getting harrassed all day by a Steeler defense which is famous for wreaking havoc on young, inexperienced quarterbacks. Twice, Gradkowski wore Joey Porter like a coat, plus he threw three interceptions (would have been four had DeShea Townsend not dropped one.) and had a receiver drop and an easy touchdown pass. But, the kid from Dormont never blinked. He hung in there. He showed leadership. And above all, he didn’t quit. At first I was a little disappointed that his head coach Jon Gruden called for a field goal attempt at the end of the game instead of letting his young quarterback try to get the ball in the endzone. But, then I thought about it and figured: That’s a pretty nice gesture for Gruden to let Gradkowski be able to say he led his team to a scoring drive against the team he grew up watching. Coach Cowher didn’t seem to like it all that much, but hey, that’s the NFL. I see a bright future for Bruce Gradkowski, I’m sure the 100 or so family and friends who watched him play at Heinz Field would agree.