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Sentiment says the Steelers should keep Willie Parker in the starting lineup while trusting he can turn back the hands of time.
Parker was a feel-good story who made the team as an undrafted free agent. He ran for a record 75-yard touchdown in Super Bowl XL. He has led the Steelers in rushing four consecutive seasons.
History says the Steelers would be wise giving fewer carries to Parker while giving more carries to second-year running back Rashard Mendenhall.
A free agent after this season, Parker's expiration date in the backfield is approaching.
He turns 29 on Nov. 11. He has 1,182 career carries, including 321 in 2007 when coach Mike Tomlin promised to run Parker "until the wheels fall off." It became an unfortunate choice of words when Parker broke his leg in the next-to-last game that season.
Parker hasn't played a full season since 2006. His average yards per carry has decreased every year he has been in the league, bottoming out at 3.8 yards per carry in 2008.
In his first two games this season as the feature back, Parker rushed 27 times for 66 yards (fewer than 3 yards per carry). His workload nearly doubles, with how often Mendenhall and Mewelde Moore have carried the ball.
A reduction in carries, rather than an increased workload, could enhance Parker's productivity and longevity.
Inevitably, as an NFL running back approaches 30, as the injuries mount and the wear and tear on his body takes its toll, his performance falters.
It happened to Shaun Alexander, who rushed for 1,696 yards and 16 touchdowns at age 27 and 1,880 yards and league-record 28 touchdowns at 28, only to fall off to 896 yards and seven touchdowns at 29. At 31, Alexander was out of the league.
It happened to Priest Holmes, an undrafted free agent who didn't become a regular contributor until 27 because of a knee injury. After rushing for 1,615 yards and 21 touchdowns at 27 and 1,420 yards and 27 touchdowns at 28, Holmes rushed for 892 yards and 14 touchdowns at 29 while missing half the season with an injury.
Larry Johnson rushed for 1,750 yards and 20 touchdowns in 2005 and 1,789 yards and 17 touchdowns on 416 carries in 2006. The following season, Johnson rushed for 559 yards and three touchdowns in only eight games because of injury at 28.
Nicknamed "Fast Willie" because of his blazing 4.3 speed, Parker — whether because of age, wear and tear on his body or an assortment of injuries — doesn't hit the holes with the same burst he flashed his first year as a starter.
It was Mendenhall who displayed the blazing speed Parker is noted for when he blasted through a hole on the right side for 39 yards in the third quarter of Sunday's 17-14 loss at Chicago — the Steelers' longest run of the season.
Mendenhall's run set up Ben Roethisberger's 2-yard touchdown dive, which gave the Steelers a 14-7 lead. In all, Mendenhall accounted for 52 of the 69 yards on the scoring drive.
Surprisingly, Mendenhall never touched the ball again.
After finally making a couple of plays against the Bears, it would have been refreshing to see the coaching staff feature Mendenhall so he could make more plays late in the contest.
The Steelers made a major financial commitment to Mendenhall, their first-round draft pick in 2008 and running back of the future.
Maybe the coaches are displaying patience with Mendenhall because time is on his side, just as time now works against Parker.