By Mike Bires
When Willie Parker reports to training camp, he figures to be in the best shape of his life. He has to be in tip-top condition in order to take on the challenges he’ll face this year.
In the what-can-you-do-for-me-now world that is the National Football League, Parker has reached a crossroad.
He’s now in his sixth pro season, which, considering the short career span of most NFL running backs, may suggest his best days are behind him.
He’s coming off his worst season since becoming the Steelers’ starter in 2005.
He sees in his rear-view mirror the presence of Rashard Mendenhall, a talented first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft who seems fully recovered from a broken shoulder that ended his rookie season.
And he’s well aware that the Steelers have shown little interest so far in extending his stay in Pittsburgh. Parker is in the last year of his contract.
Could this possibly be Parker’s last season with the Steelers?
“That (contract stuff) will take care of itself,” Parker said after one of the mini-camp practices this spring. “Whatever happens, happens. I’m just getting ready for this season. I have to make the best of it.”
Parker, who turns 29 on Nov. 11, experienced a season of highs and lows in 2008.
The good part, obviously, was playing for a Super Bowl champion for the second time in his pro career.
The bad part, however, was an injury-riddled season that left Parker 209 yards shy of his fourth straight 1,000-yard performance. Knee and shoulder problems kept him out of five games.
Then late in the year, Parker was universally criticized after complaining that the Steelers’ struggling running attack was wrongly de-emphasizing the role of the fullback.
“The issue for us is, has been and will continue to be winning,” coach Mike Tomlin said after hearing of Parker’s remarks. “That’s my interpretation of Steelers football. Every morning when I come to work, I walk past five Lombardi trophies (symbolic of Super Bowl victory), not five rushing titles. The issue is winning.”
The Steelers, of course, would go on to win their sixth Lombardi in thrilling fashion. There were several fantastic finishes, including the 27-23 come-from-behind win over the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII.
For his part, Parker finished 26th in the league with 791 rushing yards. He did have four 100-yard games, but only one against a team that would make the playoffs.
He did rush for 146 yards in an AFC divisional-round playoff game against the San Diego Chargers, but only 47 in the AFC championship against the Baltimore Ravens and only 53 in the Super Bowl.
His regular-season average of 3.8 yards per carry was his lowest since becoming a starter in 2005.
“It was a great season for the team,” Parker said. “But I’m coming off a bad season for me personally.”
This season, Parker will be paid $3.335 million. It could be the last time he ever makes that kind of money.
With big things expected of Mendenhall and third-down back Mewelde Moore capable of running with the football, Parker’s role may diminish.
Then again, if “Fast Willie” can stay healthy and regain his form of 2005-2007 when he averaged 1,337 yards per season, his chances of avoiding free agency next season and re-signing with the Steelers would likely improve.
“I love to compete and I know Rashard is going to push me,” Parker said. “It’s like I told him last year, ‘Push me. Push me. And I’ll push you.’ I think we can help each other.”
For his part, Parker promises to be ready.
“I feel great,” he said during mini-camp. “I’m heading in the right direction.”