View from the Sideline: Rashard Mendenhall

The Steelers drafted Rashard Mendenhall in the first round because he can run the ball. Craig Wolfley has watched him up close and explains what he's seen in him.

Rashard Mendenhall is a keeper. No doubt about that. Despite three fumbles in two games, it's obvious why the Steelers drafted this guy. He can flat out get it.

I know Coach Mike Tomlin said in the post game that he would have reservations about giving the ball to Rashard once the season begins – and, by the way, it's refreshing to hear the truth be told, rather than the usual "No, I've got no problem with him carrying the ball" line – but I also believe that Rashard will work his way through this without a problem.

The easy explanation is that two out of the three carries were fumbles of exertion/exhaustion; fumbles that are caused by trying to turn the mundane into the spectacular while battling vapor lock. Like every other talented running back in the NFL, Rashard believes that every time he totes the ball, he has a chance of taking it all the way. Rather than having the experience to get in and get out with what he can get in a particular instance, he delivers extra effort.

With more experience, that will disappear. Just like Kenny Rogers the gambler said, "You got to know when to hold' em and know when to fold' em."

The exhaustion that accompanied two of those fumbles will also work its way out. I can tell you that mucho energy is lost when you're young and haven't learned to relax in between plays. As a young buck trying to earn my spurs, we'd run a play and Jon Kolb, Mike Webster, Lynn Swann, and Franco Harris barely seemed to be breathing in the huddle, but I was sucking air like a drowning man. Oftentimes I had to ask for the snap count again because I couldn't hear it called the first time. Bradshaw got honked more than once at me for asking that question after the snap count was called.

Mendenhall will settle down, and he'll learn to chill in the huddle. Plus, once the season gets under way, unless there's a problem with Willie Parker, Rashard's not going to see many successive carries.

The learning curve accelerates as the season progresses. Early on, it's about fundamentals. Then it becomes the who, what, where, when and why of a player's assignments on each play. As your bank of repetitions grows with each practice, the fundamentals and plays become hard-wired into the central nervous system. Then, there's clearance for other things, like learning to relax, to forget the last play, good or bad, and focus on what's coming up.

In Rashard's case, the most important factor is to not forget the good things he's done and to keep the attention on the positive rather than the negative, which is tough when all you hear is the negative.

In this instance, there was all the hoopla surrounding the $100 reward for swatting the ball out of Rashard's hands. I was never a big fan of that. It creates almost an obsessive thought process that inevitably draws you to repeat the same mistake. Depending on the mental/emotional makeup of the individual, it can hurt far more than it can help. I can almost bet that every time Rashard handled the ball last week in practice, somewhere in the course of action a thought ran through his mind to "Don't fumble," whereas Rashard would benefit far more by having key words or phrases run through his mind.

Chuck Noll constantly harped on productive sayings like that. Instead of being told not to get stuffed on a run block that had me pulling on the sweep, Chuck would say "Same foot, same shoulder, under and up." That mantra ran over and over in my head every time Flow 36 was called in the huddle and I got out on the hoof with Franco Harris.

Chuck's wise saying enabled me in a heartbeat to remind myself to attack a man on that sweep by using my inside shoulder, and to time my step so that my inside leg and shoulder hit simultaneously. Then I'd hit with a rising blow by crouching to come under the man, and then hitting up through the man ensured me of maximizing my hitting power.

I'm sure it's been discussed already, but, to Rashard, I say next time you carry the ball, "High and tight" baby! And I'm not talking about a haircut.


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