View Full Version : Parker emphasizes substance over speed

11-19-2006, 07:22 AM
Parker emphasizes substance over speed

By Scott Brown
Sunday, November 19, 2006

Yes, Willie Parker will admit, laughing, that he once staged an informal track meet.
It happened before a state All-Star football game after his senior year at Clinton (N.C.) High School. The coaches for the East team couldn't find their players one night at the hotel. They finally looked in the parking lot where Parker was racing any teammate who dared to test his speed.

But the Steelers running back and reigning AFC Offensive Player of the Week hopes his nickname, "Fast Willie," becomes as dated as that story.

"It just implies (speed) is all I bring to the table," Parker said of the moniker.

In his first season as the Steelers' every down back, Parker has shown he has substance to go with that speed. And the evolution of the running back who entered the league as an undrafted free agent has been one of the more pleasant storylines for the Steelers in a season that has produced its share of forgettable ones.

Watching Parker's growth from afar, with the pride of a big brother, has been Jerome Bettis. During the two seasons that the backs were together, Bettis impressed upon Parker the importance of not taking everything to the outside.

That's why Bettis all but beamed as he watched Parker break loose for runs of 72 and 76 yards last Sunday in the Steelers' 38-31 win over the New Orleans Saints.

"I was so proud because he was able to bounce the play outside because he went inside first," said Bettis, who is now an NFL studio analyst for NBC. "You run inside, to get outside."

That, said Bettis, is often a hard thing for young running backs to reconcile, particularly ones whose game is predicated on speed.

He cites Reggie Bush as an example.

As touted as Parker was unheralded, Bush went to the New Orleans Saints with the second pick of last year's draft, prompting headlines such as "Houston, we have a problem."

The Texans passed on Bush, instead taking defensive end Mario Williams, and were lambasted for it.

The 2005 Heisman Trophy winner has made an impact as a punt returner and receiver out of the backfield. But he is rushing for less than 29 yards a game and is averaging just 2.8 yards per carry.

The struggles Bush is enduring are the same thing Bettis saw from Parker, even after he seemingly came out of nowhere to stick with the Steelers in 2004.

"He didn't necessarily know how to run in the NFL," Bettis said. "It's a process."

Parker has accelerated that process, and speed has had little to do with it. The player Bettis remembered as barely saying a word his rookie season nonetheless peppered him questions when the two were finished with running back meetings.

Parker listened well enough to the future Hall of Famer that, by last season, he had nudged Bettis into the role of short-yardage back.

Parker, who rushed for less than 200 yards his senior season at the University of North Carolina, ran for more than 1,200 in 2005. He punctuated his breakout season with a record 75-yard touchdown run in the Super Bowl.

Yet with Bettis gobbling up goal-line touchdowns, and Parker looking like could use a few more meals himself, questions persisted about his ability to take a pounding and effectively run inside the tackles.

In a league that covets big backs, smaller ones like the 5-10, 209-pound Parker are still suspiciously viewed as football's version of Dave Kingman: home run or strikeout, all or nothing.

Never mind that Parker is on pace to run for 1,500 yards this season -- Franco Harris never did that during his Hall of Fame career -- and that all eight of his rushing touchdowns have come when the Steelers were inside their opponent's 10-yard line.

"One thing about Willie is he's just a different back that the city of Pittsburgh has never had before," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "We've always been the bruising type, pound it out at the end.

"Everybody kept saying (after Bettis retired), 'We need two backs. He's too little.' He's silenced all of his critics that he can't be an every down back or he can't do this. Willie just needs to be Willie and not worry about what people have to say."

Parker may be small by NFL running back standards, but pound-for-pound, he may be one of the strongest players on the Steelers.

"He's been a weight-room fanatic since he's been in high school," said Bob Lewis, who coached Parker at Clinton.

Deceptive strength and speed have dovetailed with his maturation as a running back and resulted in the kind of season that could well land Parker in the Pro Bowl.

Parker is third in the AFC in rushing with 847 yards and his 10 touchdowns rank third in the NFL.

When asked where Parker has improved the most from last season to this one, Steelers coach Bill Cowher said, "There is no question his ability to run inside, I think his patience and the way he is seeing things, and those things will get nothing but better"

Speed is still the essence of Parker's game, and, not surprisingly, Cleveland Browns coach Romeo Crennel referred to him as "Fast Willie" when talking about the third-year pro last week.

That nickname -- and the perception it encourages -- is the one thing Parker may never be able to outrun.

And those who contend that Parker can dash but not mash will point to the 2.8 yards per carry he has averaged in losses to the Jaguars, Falcons and Raiders as evidence of that.

"You're always going to have critics," Parker said. "I know that."

He'll take them on one at a time - just as he did the skeptics in that dimly lit hotel parking lot.

Unlike that night, when he raced anyone that thought they could beat him, Parker is no longer defined by speed.

"He is," Cowher said, "a complete back."


11-19-2006, 07:36 AM
great read

11-19-2006, 07:43 AM
I agree Infamix.

"Everybody kept saying (after Bettis retired), 'We need two backs. He's too little.' He's silenced all of his critics that he can't be an every down back or he can't do this. Willie just needs to be Willie and not worry about what people have to say."

Unfortunately, not all of them. It's scary knowing that some people are still not sold on this kid. :pity:

Livinginthe past
11-19-2006, 08:17 AM
Yup, Willie has made the transition into one of the most complete running backs in the league this year.

I mentioned before that what impressed me mot was his ability to get hit in the backfield and still fight past the LOS - psychologically that is huge for a team to have 2nd and 9 instead of 2nd and 14.

I like his style on the field aswell, no nonsense, no crappy dances - just goes out and does what he is paid to.


11-19-2006, 08:25 AM
Willie, you rocked my world last week!!http://img.photobucket.com/albums/v11/sueincinci/Smileys/theMan.gif

I was ordering my jersey from the Reebock site Thursday morning and I was all set to get a Parker jersey, but they didn't carry his in the premier jersey only the "cheaper" one. I had to "settle " for Troy's!! I can't wait to wear it for the Ratbird game next week!! Yeah baby!