Suspended Steelers RB Mendenhall talks future
Rashard Mendenhall's future with the Steelers appeared in doubt after he was a healthy scratch two weeks ago in Baltimore, causing the former No. 1 pick to contemplate his future.
His one-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the team all but signals he will play elsewhere next season.
Mendenhall isn't likely to play again this season after failing to show up for Sunday's upset loss to San Diego at Heinz Field. He had been placed on the inactive list for the second straight week after losing his starting job to Jonathan Dwyer.
“I deem those actions a detriment to our efforts,” coach Mike Tomlin said following Wednesday's practice. “I stated as such when I met with him, and there would be repercussions of it. We had a good visit. He accepted it.”
Mendenhall will be an unrestricted free agent next year and acknowledged he is prepared to explore his options.
“I would have to weigh everything, but ultimately I've never been a person to do things out of comfort,” Mendenhall told the Tribune-Review four days before his suspension. “I'm going to do whatever is right regardless. I'm not going to hang around for a reason like that just because I've been here.”
Mendenhall, who has been slowed by a reconstructed right knee and an irritated Achilles, is expected to return to practice Monday. He did not return a phone message Wednesday.
He had said his career in Pittsburgh isn't likely to be defined by two 1,000-yard rushing seasons. Instead, he said he believes it'll be accentuated by a costly fumble in Super Bowl XLV that propelled Green Bay to victory or his controversial comment about the killing of Osama bin Laden or two lost fumbles in Cleveland that dropped him to the bottom of the depth chart.
“Anything that happens, which is usually negative, that's the only picture people have of me,” said Mendenhall, who will forfeit about $43,000 of the $700,000 he'll make this season. “When you think of Hines Ward, you think of his smile. You can forget if he drops a pass. There's something to balance it out.”
Tomlin appeared to be optimistic of Mendenhall's return, but he did not commit to activating the fifth-year running back for the final two regular-season games.
“He looks forward to ... rejoining this team and being a positive contribution to our efforts the rest of the way,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, there's frustration with his situation. But we all have a job to do. I require all guys have a job to do regardless of personal circumstances. He didn't meet the standard in that regard, and he's accepted the consequences of it.
“Hopefully this will be a lesson learned not only for him but for everyone, and we'll be able to move on from it.”
Mendenhall said Friday he has faced greater scrutiny and pressure to conform to the organization expectations.
“By the nature of being in the NFL and being in the locker room, representing the Steelers, you have to be a certain way and things have to be a certain way,” said Mendenhall, who led the Steelers in rushing the past three seasons. “Yes, if I want to stay here, I have to be in a certain box.”
Mendenhall appears to have some fences to mend with his teammates. Though most agree his suspension isn't a distraction with an AFC playoff berth still within reach, they are prepared to move on without him.
“I don't feel like it's a distraction,” running back Isaac Redman said Wednesday. “Coach Tomlin made a decision, and we all agreed with it. Now we'll just move forward.”
Safety Will Allen said he empathizes with Mendenhall, yet defended Tomlin's action, mostly because he said he would have shown up Sunday as a commitment to the team.
“I'm not going to judge (Mendenhall), but he has to ask himself if he has a lack of respect for the team, or does he feel he's been disrespected by the team,” Allen said. “It's a tough pill to swallow when you're removed from being a starter.
“When you're faced with an adverse situation, you have to know how to deal with it. That's what this game is about. You have to look at yourself and take accountability for your action. I don't feel disrespected (by Mendenhall).
“It's a growing process for him,” Allen continued. “I think this situation isn't just about football. It's a distraction for him. I'm not saying he's a bad apple, but in this game there are too many talented people who can play.”
The burden of the ground game now falls on Dwyer, Redman and rookie Chris Rainey. The Steelers signed Baron Batch from the practice squad Tuesday to replace Mendenhall.
“The guy with the best stats wins,” said Mendenhall, who has totaled only 113 yards on 34 carries in four games.
Redman is convinced it isn't solely about the numbers. It's a matter of confidence, and the coaching staff, it seems, is no longer confident Mendenhall can carry the load.
“He's been hurt during the year, and he's been battling through some things, so it's not like he's been the No. 1 guy all year,” said Redman, who started five games and missed two because of injuries. “Hopefully he can get back on the right track and help this football team.”
Mendenhall remains skeptical.
“When I first got here, I thought that I wanted play with one team,” said Mendenhall, who added that a change of scenery might rejuvenate his career. “With a lot of how I've been represented football-wise, I'm closed off and to myself.
“I don't say a lot or do a lot, and because of that, people really don't know who I am. They really can't read me. So it's up to others to interpret who I am.
“People want me to act a certain way when I move around Pittsburgh. That's when it gets frustrating. Sometimes when people try to project the football player image on me, that's when it doesn't fit.”
For now, Mendenhall doesn't appear to fit with the Steelers. It's a factor that will figure prominently as he explores his options in free agency.
“As long as I play in Pittsburgh, people will have a certain perception of me,” Mendenhall said. “The fans are going to remember this or that. As long as I'm here, there will be these looming things over my head.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.