Whetstone: Life After El

Jor-El … Kal-El … Randle El? Okay, okay … he isn't quite Superman. But replacing Antwaan Randle El and his contributions to the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers won't be as easy as just plugging in a second receiver who can return punts.

To begin with, it'll be hard enough to find a receiver with such a solid attitude, intelligence, and unselfishness. At a position renowned for attention-hungry prima donnas and high-maintenance malcontents, Randle El hasn't complained about seeing few passes in Pittsburgh's run-heavy offense. Despite his diminutive size and background as a college quarterback, he has followed the lead of teammate Hines Ward and made himself into a capable blocker, willing to sacrifice his body against even such gargantuan defensive tackles as Minnesota's Pat Williams. He has done whatever has been necessary to make himself most useful to the Steelers, never demanding that the team itself be reconfigured to better suit his own preferences. And few football players, regardless of position, have been more solid citizens over the past four years.

Replacing Antwaan's productivity as a second receiver should be relatively easy; any number of guys should catch 35 balls and an odd touchdown. Replacing his talent as a punt returner could be a bigger challenge. Antwaan's average of 10.2 yards per return fell near the top of the league, and no one else took two all the way to the house. Moreover, those two accounted for 22% of all punt return touchdowns in the entire league in 2005. Still, it's hardly an insurmountable task faced by the Steelers to replace his special teams production. Other guys can return punts well, many of whom could step in as rookies out of this year's college draft.

Where Randle El will be most missed on the field will be as a catalyst for big plays. Among the serious questions faced by the Steelers entering 2005 as they looked to replace departed Plaxico Burress's production was whether the offense could generate the big plays downfield that had contributed to fifteen wins the season before. In that regard, Antwaan filled Burress's shoes and then some. By my count, in 2005 Pittsburgh generated 24 plays of at least forty yards on offense and in the return game combined. Of those 24, Randle El caught, ran for, threw, or returned eight of them. Outside of Ben Roethlisberger, no other Steeler had a hand in anything close to that many 40-yard plays: Willie Parker contributed to five, Cedrick Wilson to four, Ward to three, Heath Miller and Quincy Morgan contributed to two each, and Colclough to one. (If anyone is counting, those numbers total 25 because one such play was a pass from Randle El to Ward… no, not in the Super Bowl, but a remarkably similar play against the Browns in the regular season).

Eight 40-yard plays will be difficult to replace. It's very unlikely that any receiver, however capable, will be able to do so by himself, considering how many such plays the most prolific and explosive offensive players around the league generated in 2005: Shaun Alexander had five; Tiki Barber had six; Steve Smith had six; Chad Johnson had seven; Santana Moss also had eight. That's the kind of big-play company that Randle El kept last season, and it's unrealistic to expect that any replacement, be he rookie or veteran, will be able to duplicate that particular component of his contributions even if he's a legitimate upgrade as an every-down wideout. In an offense that, though productive, has been steadier than it has been explosive, those big plays can make a real impact in the win column over the course of a season.

Antwaan's playoff contributions also shouldn't be overlooked. The stat sheet shows that in Cincinnati, Roethlisberger threw the game-icing touchdown to Wilson, but Randle El had a bigger hand in making that play work than either. It is the threat of his versatility on those sorts of plays that throws defenses into disarray. In the Super Bowl, Antwaan caught a mere three passes for 22 yards, and yet he made a legitimate case for game MVP. Two of those three passes converted long third downs, and the other came on the game-clinching touchdown drive. His two punt returns netted 32 yards of field position, an important factor with the offense struggling to maintain long drives. He tackled the defender after both of Roethlisberger's costly interceptions, the second of which required his best Ben Watson imitation to run the length and breadth of the field to catch Kelly Herndon. And, of course, he made the signature play of Super Bowl XL when he zipped the most perfect pass of the game to Ward behind the confused coverage on an end around reverse from Parker for a 43-yard touchdown. All told, that's not a bad day's work.

Maybe Pittsburgh won't miss a beat without Randle El. Maybe they'll find yet another versatile athlete to fill the void after having enjoyed two of the league's best between Randle El and Kordell Stewart over the past decade. Or, maybe they'll undergo an offensive adjustment to make up the production in some other way. Any way about it, even though he has been just mediocre as a pure receiver, it'll probably require multiple players to replace Antwaan's myriad contributions, and that says a lot about his overall talents. It's very possible that his production as a receiver will increase in Washington, but that his overall value will decline nonetheless; he was that well-utilized in Pittsburgh. He played an undeniably important role in Pittsburgh's championship run, and his presence will be missed.

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