Winning the Super Bowl vicariously

Ryan Wilson takes one last look at the 2007 season before wondering if Darren McFadden might be in the Steelers' future.

Two weeks ago I was preparing for the seemingly inevitable: a New England Patriots Super Bowl victory, a perfect season, the end of Mercury Morris' relative relevancy (although probably just the beginning of his inane rants), and six months of insufferable "the Pats are the greatest team ever!" discussions. And then Eli Manning, courtesy of our long lost friend Plaxico Burress, led the most improbable fourth-quarter drive to pull off the most schadenfreude-tastic upset in Super Bowl history.

I went from dreading the off-season to embracing it; it was like everybody outside a six state area in the Northeastern United States was a Giants fan for the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, and, hell, for the last two weeks too. I can't believe it's come to this, but I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Eli Manning for saving football. We owe you one, Opie.

With that out of the way, we can focus on the important stuff. First up: how long until Arlen Specter convinces Patrick Leahy to haul Bill Belichick in front of the Judiciary Committee to grill him about his videotaping-related program activities? After meeting with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for almost two hours on Wednesday, Specter revealed that the Patriots had (allegedly) illegally videotaped the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 2004 season. Awesome.

The obvious reaction is to wonder what effect this had on Pittsburgh's chances of winning multiple Super Bowls this decade. But then it dawned on me: the Steelers still won it all a year later, and we all got to revel in New England's misery at the hands of Eric Mangini back in Week 1, and the Giants 12 days ago. Not only is the Patriots' perfect regular season now meaningless, their 18-1 record will forever come with a handy asterisk.

Plus, with New England supposedly stealing just defensive signals, there's no explaining Ben Roethlisberger's three-interception performance in the 2004 AFC Championship game. And given Big Ben's performance the week before against the Jets, I'm not convinced the outcome would've been any different against an opponent not obsessed with cheating. At least that's how I'm rationalizing it, anyway.

In any case, I don't expect Congress to take up this issue primarily because Senator Leahy said that Congress wouldn't take up this issue. And I'm fine with that. Not because "politicians have more important things to do" because, frankly, they don't. After my four-year stint in D.C. I learned a very important lesson about the wonders of democracy, particularly at the federal level (If you're not up for a bastardized civics lesson, feel free to skip to the next section): gridlock is the ultimate checks-and-balances tool. With the Republicans in the White House and the Democrats controlling Congress, Specter has time to take on pet projects, which means less time to screw up bigger, more important issues. Consider it the lesser of the evils. Sure, it's an imperfect system, but Winston Churchill makes a good point: "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

Although I'm pretty sure nothing of substance would come of it, it would be high comedy to see Belichick have to testify under oath wearing a cut-off hoodie and mumbling something about how we "can't handle the truth," or some such nonsense.

I had originally planned to start this column by mentioning that the NFL Network's Mike Mayock doesn't have Arkansas running back Darren McFadden on his list of top-20 draft prospects. It's still early in the process; we have the combine, Pro Days, and individual team workouts in front of us, so much can change. But it's still surprising given all the ink McFadden has received the last two years.

Anyway, my mind immediately turned to the Steelers after hearing Mayock's early take on McFadden. Specifically, let's assume McFadden was available when Pittsburgh went on the clock with their 23rd pick. Should they draft him? Even though they have bigger needs at offensive line, defensive line, and in the secondary? First, a little background (and for many of you, it's old hat, but indulge me):

In my last column I mentioned my four loosely held beliefs when it comes to building a roster. After some discussion, I got to thinking more about these beliefs, particularly the notion that teams shouldn't draft running backs in the first round because comparable talent can be found later at a fraction of the cost.

A few weeks ago, I was talking with some buddies about the idea that, in general, drafting running backs in the first round is a waste. For me, it comes down to two things: first, running backs are fungible; there isn't a more interchangeable position on the field. It happens every season; the starter goes down, and somebody previously only recognized by close friends and family steps in, does exceedingly well, and we're all wondering how this guy didn't get drafted earlier.

Second, unless your roster is stacked from top to bottom and the only missing piece is a running back, it seems that teams would be better suited drafting an offensive or defensive linemen, linebacker or cornerback (basically anyone but a running back). The two most obvious examples of teams needing just a running back are the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots.

The Colts lost Edgerrin James to the Cardinals and they really did need to find his replacement. (By the way, the only thing worse than using a first-round pick on a running back is grossly overpaying for a 28-year-old who averaged 313 carries his first seven years in the league.) Not only did James keep defenses honest, he was a great blocker. Since the Colts annually pick near the bottom of the first round, drafting Joseph Addai seemed like the logical move. And in hindsight, it was the right one.

Same for the Patriots. Corey Dillon was eating himself out of the league and New England hadn't had a young running back with gobs of potential since Curtis Martin. You could make the case that New England's biggest need wasn't running back but wide receiver. Deion Branch was still with the team but had designs on holding out (he eventually did just that and the Pats traded him to the Seahawks just before the season for Seattle's 2007 first-round pick). David Givens left in free agency to sign with the Titans (never to be heard from again), and Troy Brown and Tom Brady were left to wonder what the hell happened.

With all the uncertainty, the Patriots traded up in the second round for Chad Jackson, who to date hasn't done much. You'd have to think that if the organization knew Branch was a goner they might've drafted Santonio Holmes with the 21st pick. So, Deion, thanks for holding out.

For me, the issue is this: unless a team is stacked with talent, and it's one glaring weakness is at running back, it makes sense to take one in the first round, preferably near the bottom of the round. Otherwise, take an offensive or defensive linemen, or a defensive back. A team can never have enough depth at any of those positions; a competent running back can be found on the practice squad.

So getting back to my original question: if McFadden is available late in the first round, the Steelers should … draft, in order of importance, an offensive or defensive linemen, or a defensive back. Think about it this way: it's April 2007 and you're Kevin Colbert. Miraculously, Adrian Peterson is available with the 15th pick. Do you take him? I'll just assume you said yes. Now think back on the Steelers 10-7 season. Can you identify one game where the team lost because of the running game? Sure, Willie Parker had some poor efforts -- the second Bengals contest comes to mind … but the Steelers won despite his 18-turnover performance -- but he also played well for most of the year.

And that's the thing: there's no denying Peterson is a special talent, but first, Minnesota has a solid offensive line. (Imagine how Parker might've fared behind Matt Birk, Steve Hutchinson and Bryant McKinnie.) Second, the Steelers would've still been a 10-7 team if they had drafted Peterson and we'd still be talking about the inadequacies along the offensive line.

This little thought experiment isn't to say Lawrence Timmons was the obvious choice. Just the opposite, in fact. I'll talk about this more next week, but for now I'll leave you with this question: remember before the 2007 draft, Jim Wexell thought Pittsburgh should take Joe Staley with the 15th pick? In retrospect, we'd all be applauding that move right now. And Staley would've been much more valuable to the Steelers last season than Peterson. Even though he'll never rush for 200 yards in a game.

Same holds for McFadden this year. And that's the point.

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