Monday, August 08, 2005

The Running Back Situation

Well, Duce Staley made it through all of one practice before having to sit out with a knee injury. In fact, he's had to have his knee drained and underwent an MRI Sunday to see the extent of the damage. What's a little troublesome is that the depth chart looks like this:
Player         Status
Duce Staley knee
Jerome Bettis age
Verron Haynes chronically injured
Willie Parker healthy, 2004 undrafted free agent
Noah Herron rookie, 7th round pick
I guess it's really not surprising that Duce is injured, since it's as inevitable as Manny asking to be traded, but the fact that it happened the first week -- the first day -- of training camp is kind of a problem. Next in line is the Bus, who's made it clear to anyone who'll listen that if he has to start 16 games this season he might die. And I don't think he's kidding. Literally keel over. That's certainly understandable given Bettis' style, and luckily Verron Haynes is a very capable backup. Unfortunately, we could also call Haynes "Duce-lite" since he also suffers from a seemingly endless string of nagging injuries that cause him to miss chunks of the season. While Bettis doesn't think he can finish a season because of some combination of age and injury, Just about everyone with a pair of eyes is pretty sure Haynes wouldn't make it to week 8 as the starting tailback because he's so fragile.

That leads us to 2004 undrafted free agent Willie Parker, and 7th round pick Noah Herron. I have a couple of memories of Parker from last season. He made a couple of big plays in the December 5 game at Jacksonville. He also ran for 100 yards in the season finale at Buffalo. But the lasting visual -- burned into my brain -- is when he bobbled a pass downfield against the Redskins, got obliterated by safety Sean Taylor, and promptly graduated to "Jacked Up" status on NFL Primetime. That said, I think that Parker will be an important part of the running game, especially given that the average age of the current starter and backup is close to 50. Parker is basically a faster, more elusive, better pass catching (despite the Sean Taylor incident) version of Amos Zereoue. You remember Zereoue, right? He was the guy Cowher installed as the starter going into the 2003 season based on a gut decision.

At the time, it was a head-scratcher, but in retrospect maybe Cowher knew that the offensive line would end up being, well, offensive, and he wanted to spare Bettis the humiliation experienced by Zereoue. Namely, averaging 1.5 yards per carry and sprinkling in at least four or five "carries for negative gain" runs per game.

And then there's Noah Herron, the 7th round pick. When the Steelers drafted him, they stated that he would move to fullback. That has yet to happen, and given how things are playing out, it probably won't ever take place. I remember the Steelers making similar comments about Verron Haynes when he came out of Georgia. I don't know much about Herron, but I did come across this:
Noah Herron, 5-11, 200, [ran a]4.6 40. That can't be right.

There's something else ... his 3-cone time is 6.96 seconds, better than all backs at the combine but Cadillac Williams, who nipped Herron at 6.95. Cadillac Williams was drafted fifth in the entire draft.

It also says here that the 3-cone drill measures agility, shiftiness; what a running back really needs. And here's his intelligence, or Wonderlic, score: 25, second of all backs.
My first reaction was, "4.6? That's not awful." And then I saw the 3-cone numbers and his Wonderlic score and wondered why the hell this guy wasn't drafted until the 7th round. According to reports, he's had a good first week of practice, and for a team that runs the ball 60% of the time, Herron may get to see a lot of action as the year unfolds. And that's pretty amazing when you consider that he's currently fifth on the depth chart. Of course my ability to pick the final roster is right on par with Millar's ability to hit homers, so take that for what it's worth.

Whatever happens with Duce, Jerome, Verron, Willie and Noah, one thing's for certain. This is much less of a problem than the injuries that torpedoed the 2003 Steelers season. For starters, the Broncos proved that if you have solid offensive line play, Mark Madden can run the ball for 100 yards (just ask the 2004 version of Clinton Portis). In 2003 Pittsburgh had a string of injuries up front and the results included a lot of really crappy football that culminated in a six win season. If the Steeler line holds up in 2005, I'd love to see Haynes, Parker and Herron get some touches. I'm guessing the Bus wouldn't mind it either.