Steelers' Dwyer eager to take on starter's role
Jonathan Dwyer is seemingly the last man standing among a crowded, unsettled corps of Steelers running backs.
In an uneven season in which a troika of runners — Dwyer, Rashard Mendenhall and Isaac Redman — have endured myriad bumps, bruises and slumps, Dwyer has emerged as the feature back with the Steelers jockeying for postseason position.
“It makes you want to work harder and prove something and solidify yourself,” Dwyer said. “I try to do the little things — earn your trust, earn your reputation and put good stuff on tape. I understand that being a feature running back takes a lot of responsibility.
“Everybody is counting on you to do a lot of things, whether it's getting the running game started or to close out a game. You have to be the tough guy, someone they can depend on all the time. I feel like that's what they pay you to do.”
Dwyer, says Georgia Tech coach Bill Johnson, has arrived at his destiny.
The former Yellow Jacket will start for the fourth time this season when the Steelers play the San Diego Chargers at 1 p.m. Sunday at Heinz Field. Only this time, coach Mike Tomlin penciled him into the starting lineup because he earned the job, not because of injuries to Mendenhall and Redman.
“It's a confidence boost to know you've done enough to earn a starting role,” offensive tackle Max Starks said. “When you look at what he's been asked to do, then prevail, it's a testament to him. He's been humble through this process because he had injuries and he was behind good running backs.”
From nearly cut to starter
It's a remarkable reversal of fortune for Dwyer, who for three seasons scratched and clawed his way on the 53-man roster after being virtually overlooked during the 2010 NFL Draft. He was a projected first-round pick who inexplicably tumbled down the draft board before the Steelers selected him with the first of two sixth-round picks that included receiver Antonio Brown.
“It doesn't matter where you're drafted,” Johnson said. “It depends on what you do. Jonathan has been resilient, and now's he getting his chance.”
It was a chance nearly squandered several times, partly because of a perpetual battle with weight. And when he appeared poised to move up the depth chart, injuries pulled him back.
Kirby Wilson, the Steelers' running back coach, admits Dwyer nearly was cut several times during training camp the past two years. As fate would have it, numbers and injuries secured him a roster spot.
“I think the reality is he was pretty close (to being cut) in the coaches' minds,” Wilson said. “He was valuable as a special teams player, and he's improved in that area since he's been in the league.
“We all made the comment during training camp that he had turned the corner. He was playing at a high level, and we felt like we had three feature runners.”
Dwyer, though, relishes the challenge of being No. 1. For Wilson, inserting Dwyer into the starting lineup wasn't a difficult decision.
“With the combination of him playing well and being the healthiest of the three, it was a no-brainer,” Wilson said. “He has always felt as if he was a premier player. He believes he's a feature runner, and we believe he'll continue to grow.”
Dwyer's chances of playing in the NFL were nearly derailed because of a failed drug test prior to the draft, said his agent, Adisi Bakari. It was a charge later refuted, but it diminished his stock in a draft in which some scouting services rated him among the top three running backs.
Ultimately, 10 running backs were drafted ahead of Dwyer, including first-round picks Ryan Matthews of San Diego, Buffalo's C.J. Spiller and Detroit's Jahvid Best.
“There was information leaked before the draft that Jonathan had failed a drug test,” Bakari said. “Of course, Jonathan did not fail a drug test for any actual prohibitive drug. Jonathan's on prescribed medication, and he was exempted and continues to be exempt from that urinalysis test that produces a positive test for the prescription medication he takes.”
Dwyer's drug test revealed the usage of amphetamines, a medication he takes to control Attention Deficit Disorder.
“That made me open up to my whole secret of having attention deficit disorder,” said Dwyer, who was diagnosed as a child. “I never really told anybody. So when it finally happened, it was a situation in which I had to save myself.
“I didn't want people to think I was some guy into marijuana or some kind of trouble maker. I've had to take medicine to help me throughout my life.”
Dwyer continues to take the medicine.
“There are days when you can tell I'm different,” he said. “But it's nothing that holds me back now. It helps me stay focused and on top of things. It definitely hasn't caused any harm to my athletic talents. I'll get lost and daydream sometimes, but nothing serious.”
The 32 teams were lukewarm about drafting him. Wilson said the Steelers opted to draft Dwyer in the sixth round because they believed that was his value. The organization wasn't influenced by the drug test, Wilson said.
“Regardless of the projections, when we evaluated him, that's what he was worth,” Wilson said. “As painful as that may sound or feel, it's the truth. Now, who he develops into afterward, that's on him. It's on him putting in the time and effort to get better. To his credit, he's done that, especially as of late.”
Still, Bakari was convinced Dwyer was unfairly evaluated days before the draft.
“I thought Jonathan was the best running back of his draft class,” Bakari said. “A lot of things happened over that four-month period between the last college game he played and the draft, but it did not change my perspective about how successful a running back he would be in the NFL.
“It's obvious that people spent too much time focusing on things other than his film. His film was very indicative of his pro prospects. Jonathan was exceptional at the collegiate level, and he's closing in on being exceptional at the professional level.”
Dwyer, who has thrived athletically after being diagnosed with ADD as a child, volunteers his time with several organizations – including Jacob's Ladder Neurodevelopmental School & Therapy Center in Atlanta. The center offers state-of-the-art therapeutic and multi-sensory teaching techniques and individual attention for kids with neurological disorders such as ADD, autism, Down Syndrome and Cerebral Palsy. Also, it provides services for kids with learning disabilities and genetic disorders.
“I do a lot of work with Jacob's Ladder,” said Dwyer, who's involved in neo-feedback labs to test young people to see how their brain works. “They are smart kids, but they learn a different way. Their minds work a different way, so I'm just trying to do what I can.”
Other factors for falling
Dwyer's falling to the sixth round shocked Johnson, in part, because NFL scouts had assured him that Dwyer would be selected no later than the second round.
“I'm not privy to any of the talk about a failed drug test,” Johnson said Thursday. “You hear all kinds of things, but I was surprised he fell in the draft after we were told he would be a first-round pick. And that's why he came out early.”
Bakari added there were other factors that caused teams to pass on Dwyer — including a poor performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis and the uncertain progression of a running back playing exclusively in Georgia Tech's triple-option offense.
Johnson quickly dismissed the notion that his triple-option offense factored in Dwyer's surprising draft-day slide.
“I don't think it had anything to do with the offense,” he said. “Jonathan was projected as a first-round draft pick in the offense. It's what (NFL scouts) saw him play in for two years.
“All of a sudden they decided to re-evaluate him because of the offense he played in after they already had evaluated him? It doesn't make any sense.
“I talked with Jonathan and his dad before he came out. We were told he would be a late first-round pick or early second-round pick because that's what he got back from the (NFL) advisory committee.”
Bakari said Dwyer performed far better during his Pro Day at Georgia Tech. But he said the drug test adversely influenced scouts' perception.
“Coaches like to say the eye in the sky (film) doesn't lie. Often times, because there's so much time between the last game and the draft, teams ignore the tape,” Bakari said. “They give more weight to other factors like the 40-yard dash and forget how productive a player was in college.
“There was very little in Jonathan's college career — other than he played in an unconventional offense — that suggested he wouldn't be successful. He isn't doing anything now that he hadn't done his entire career as a running back.”
Something to prove
Dwyer, who signed a three-year, $1.3 million contract that pays him $540,000 this season, will be a restricted free agent at season's end. The Steelers likely will take a look at running backs in next year's draft, but uncertainty surrounding Mendenhall — and Dwyer's improved performance — has given Bakari leverage.
“The contract situation will take care of itself,” he said. “The NFL is a production-based business.”
That is evident in Mendenhall's unceremonious demotion after fumbling twice in Cleveland.
Mendenhall missed the entire preseason and the first three regular-season games while rehabilitating a surgically repaired knee. He has been unable to recapture the form that enabled him to twice compile 1,000-yard rushing seasons in four years.
Now the spotlight is on Dwyer.
“If you consider yourself a good player, you have to show it,” said Dwyer, who last Sunday scored his first career touchdown in the Steelers' 23-20 win over AFC North leader Baltimore. “You have to show it during practice to prove you can do it on Sunday.
“I felt I had a lot to prove to a lot of teams that passed me up or the ones I thought would draft me. Even here, that (the Steelers) waited so long to draft me, I feel like I have to prove something week in and week out.”
Dwyer, who last season against Tennessee recorded his first 100-yard rushing game in relief of Mendenhall, had been haunted by spells of doubt all season. He has been in and out of the lineup with minor injuries that three times left him on the inactive list or forced him to play sparingly in two other games.
“I felt some disappointment, but I could see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Dwyer said. “I saw glimpses of things I could do. Every time I touch the ball I want to make something happen. I can't score every play, but I want to make sure it's something positive.
“Everybody has their own story, but my journey has its ups and downs. Right now it's in the process of going up. I want to continue to keep it that way. It's made me tougher mentally and a tougher person off the field and enabled me to fight through adversity.”
It's been a trying season for Dwyer, emotionally and mentally. His wife, whom he married during the Steelers' bye week in September, had complications with her pregnancy. It's something, he said, that put everything in perspective.
“Everything is going well, but it's our first child, so you got to adjust,” he said with a smile. “It makes you grow up a lot. Those two people are my motivation every day to do what I've got to do. They make me wake up every day and go work my butt off.”
He is doing so now as the Steelers' workhorse, a distinguished designation that once appeared unlikely.
Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com