From 1996 to 2005, every person in the world of football knew what the Pittsburgh Steelers would do in this situation. They would give the ball to Jerome Bettis, he would get four yards, the clock would tick away, and the Steelers would celebrate another victory.
Today, Jerome Bettis is gone. This is a job for the Steelers new bruising, big, powerful back. Their short yardage guy. It's the Steeler way. That's how they do it.
Najeh Davenport, a nation turns its lonely eyes to you.
Or does it?
I've been thinking about this inevitable situation a lot lately. It's going to happen this year. Maybe not in week one, maybe not in the first-half of the season, maybe it won't come up until the playoffs. But it will be there. Who gets the ball on this ever important third-and-short situation?
It seems, with all good things in life, there is always a, "yeah, but" following it, whatever it is. That girl at the end of the bar is kind of hot, and I think she just smiled at me…but, that big, burly looking guy with the Grizzly Adams beard is her husband, and he's a surly jealous type. I just got my pay check…but, it came with the car insurance bill and student loan payments. Willie Parker is good ... but ...
The last one seems to come up every time a group of Steelers fans carry on a conversation. The "but" always seems to vary, but it's always there. For example:
I like Willie Parker ... but, I don't think he can "carry the load."
Willie Parker is great ... but, he's not big enough to move the pile and get those "tough yards."
Willie Parker had a good game ... but, if you ignore that 75-yard touchdown, he didn't really do all that much.
Just once I would love to hear somebody say, "I really like Willie Parker," and end the sentence. Let's try it: I really like Willie Parker. That sounds nice.
Over the years, Steelers fans have become accustomed to a number of things, winning being the most important. Big, powerful, pile-moving, bowling ball shaped running backs being another; guys like John Henry Johnson, Franco Harris, Barry Foster, Bam Morris, and most notably Jerome Bettis.
Physically, Willie Parker is like none of those guys. He's sleek, fast, a formula one racer in a stock car world.
During the 2006 season, Willie Parker was a ray of sunshine on an otherwise disappointing rainy day. At the end of the year, the final product was one of the finest seasons in Steelers history. One of the few players who not only met expectations, but in many ways, exceeded them. He broke the single-season touchdown record previously held by Louis Lipps. His rushing total was the third highest of any Steelers running back in history. It was a great season, eclipsed only by Barry Foster's 1992 campaign, and the Pittsburgh debut of Jerome Bettis in 1996.
But, can he get those tough yards? Can he move the sticks? Can he carry the load? Why don't we give Najeh Davenport, a big back, the ball in those short yardage situations so he can move the pile?
Yeah, about that ...
If you think of short yardage situations as anything less than three yards to go, and you consider success in those situations as picking up the first down, the Steelers best short yardage back is a fairly easy call.
In 2006, Najeh Davenport carried the ball in 16 of those situations; he was successful in getting the first down on five attempts, a success rate of 31%.
By comparison, Willie Parker had 39 short yardage carries and was successful on 25 of them, a success rate of 64%.
I think – and I could be wrong on this – there is a perception that because Najeh Davenport is 6-foot-1 and 240 pounds, that his best role would be a short-yardage bruiser, a guy to take over the Jerome Bettis role from 2004 and 2005. And because Willie Parker is smaller, not as intimidating to look at, and built to run around people instead of through them, that he can't run between the tackles and pick up those tough, important first downs.
The numbers disagree.
That's not to say Davenport can't have a place on this team, because he can. The Steelers will need more than one good running back. They'll need quite a few. But instead of searching far and wide for a new short yardage back, the Steelers would be best served to just hand the ball to the one who is already sitting under their noses.