By Mike Bires
No longer does Willie Parker talk about winning a rushing title. No, not after what happened last year when he was publicly chastised by his coach for making a selfish comment about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ running game.
But with the Steelers about to embark on a Super Bowl defense, there’s no doubt Parker has a new sense of purpose.
“I’m not out to prove I’m one of the best running backs in the National Football League,” Parker said. “I just want to play like one.”
Parker, who rushed for over 1,200 yards in each of his first three seasons as a starter, will certainly get his chances to regain his all-star form.
The Steelers have an intriguing mix of ball carriers in Parker, back-up Rashard Mendenhall, third-down back Mewelde Moore and perhaps even rookie Frank “The Tank” Summers, who’s going to play more fullback if and when the Steelers decide to use a fullback.
“I like all those guys,” offensive coordinator Bruce Arians of his backfield. “They give us a lot of different looks and a lot of different options.”
Still, coach Mike Tomlin says the best way for the Steelers’ running game to re-energize itself is with “Fast Willie” getting the bulk of the carries.
“Rashard has done a nice job. He’s going to get an opportunity to get his touches,” Tomlin said of the Steelers’ first-round draft pick last year whose rookie season was cut short by a broken shoulder.
“But more importantly than anything else, Willie Parker is our runner.”
Even though he missed three preseason games due to minor back and hamstring injuries, Parker seems poised to regain his form of 2005-2007 when he galloped to rushing totals of 1,202, 1,494 and 1,316 yards, respectively.
He wants to prove that last year was an injury-riddled fluke, a season cut short by five games due to knee and back problems. Parker’s 791 rushing was the lowest total by the team rushing leader since Amos Zeroue accounted for 762 in 2002.
Late last year, Parker also got in hot water by complaining that the struggling running game, which finished 23rd in the league, needed to use a traditional fullback more often.
The next day, Tomlin ripped Parker by saying a Lombardi Trophy, symbolic of Super Bowl glory for the team, is more important than a rushing title for a running back.
Never again has Parker complained about anything, not even the fact he didn’t get a contract extension during the offseason from the front office. Several Steelers in the last year of their existing contracts got new deals. But one of the few who didn’t was Parker.
“I’m a Steeler. The Steelers are all I know. I love these guys here,” Parker said. “I really can’t talk about the future. I can only worry about the present.”
The present for Parker and the Steelers is the season opener against the Tennessee Titans.
It’s a game against the last team to beat the Steelers.
Parker remembers the day well. In that 31-14 loss to the Titans last December in Nashville, Parker carried 19 times for just 31 yards. It was one of his worst games of the year.
“They got the best of us last year. They were the best team at the time,” Parker said. “But last year is last year.”
Yes, this is a new year and Parker would love to start off 2009 just the way he did when he made his first start in 2005. The Steelers trounced the Titans that day, 34-7 at Heinz Field, as Parker rushed for 161 yards, the most yards ever by a Steeler back on opening day.
In fact, Parker has rushed for over 100 yards in each of his first four opening-day starts _ 115 vs. the Miami Dolphins in 2006, 109 vs. the Cleveland Browns in ’07 and 138 against the Houston Texans last year.
“I’m ready, man,” Parker said. “I can speak for everyone else on this team. They’re ready … just like I am.”
When asked if can handle 20-to-25 carries a game this, Parker just laughed.
“(Coach Tomlin) is already trying to run my wheels off,” he said.
Then, with another smile, Parker said, “I’m good. Come 8:30 (Thursday night), I’m going to be as good as I can be. It’s time to play ball.”