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Starkey: Fast Willie's future clouded

Willie Parker carried the ball 50 times in the first two games of the 2007 season, prompting somebody to ask first-year Steelers coach Mike Tomlin if he planned to continue riding Parker so hard.

Tomlin replied that he would "ride Willie until the wheels come off."

Earlier this week, I reminded Parker of that quote. He managed a smile but quickly turned serious.

"That year," Parker said, "he did run me a little too much."

Too much?

"I think I was leading the league in carries that year," Parker said. "I don't think that was smart of us as an offensive unit. You can look back at it, and I guess we would change some things. But it is what it is. It's about now."

Actually, offensive coordinator Bruce Arians wouldn't change a thing. After tying for fifth in the league in attempts with 337 in 2006, Parker was first in attempts (nearly 23 per game) and yards going into the 15th game of '07, at St. Louis, when he suffered a broken leg on his first carry.

"No, I wouldn't change anything," Arians said. "He was going strong, Pro Bowl. I'd take back that play he broke his leg on; that'd be the only thing. And I don't think these current injuries have anything to do with that year."

I tend to agree with Arians. Parker had a normal workload for a premier back. He was barely involved in the passing game, and Najeh Davenport took five carries a game, too.

When the Steelers signed Parker to a four-year, $13.6 million contract in September of 2006 - after only one full season - it wasn't to split a workload. They signed him to ride him, and Parker responded with two more terrific years before the fluke leg injury, when his foot caught in the turf at the Edward Jones Dome.

That proved to be the first in a string of injuries, the latest being turf toe.

The reality now is that Parker will turn 29 Wednesday, and, like many backs his age, has begun to slow down. Would four fewer carries per game have prevented the erosion?

Look around the league. Of the top 10 rushers, only one (Thomas Jones) is older than 27.

Look at history. Of the 250 rushing seasons of at least 1,200 yards, only 20 were posted by running backs 30-or-older.

It just happens. The arc of Parker's career is graphically reflected in his annual yards-per-carry average, starting with a limited-action first season:

5.8

4.7

4.4

4.1

3.8

3.1

Two months ago, Tomlin said: "Willie is our runner." Today, Parker is Rashard Mendenhall's backup. That's how fast things happen in the NFL.

In five short years, the good-natured Parker has gone from long shot to big shot to looking for his next shot. He's even starting to sound old.

"You know how it is, football, it's a young man's sport," Parker said, when asked to consider his rapidly changing fortunes. "You gotta be healthy to play this game. I've been having little nicks here and there."

This doesn't necessarily mean we've seen the last of Fast Willie. He might still help the Steelers. He is capable of a pinch-hit homer, even if he hasn't had a run longer than 34 yards since late in '06.

We could see flashes of the old Parker from time to time, but I doubt if we'll ever see it again from game to game. The Steelers have shown no interest in re-signing him after the season. It's hard to imagine anyone offering big money to a beat-up runner who will turn 30 next season.

Parker insists he isn't thinking ahead.

"One thing I do is wake up and pray in the morning and live my life right now," he said. "I just worry about the present."

Funny thing about Parker: He is the third-most prolific runner in franchise history (behind Franco Harris and Jerome Bettis) and the only one to post three consecutive years of 1,200 yards or better, yet nobody ever seemed to consider him among the NFL's elite.

Nobody but the Steelers, that is.

Why do you think they gave him the ball so much?

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