Steelers' Parker taking a professional stance
Willie Parker may well play his final home game in a Steelers' uniform Sunday.
If Parker, who is in the final year of his contract, signs elsewhere after the season, he will leave Pittsburgh as one of the more distinguished running backs in Steelers history — though probably not on the terms he envisioned.
Parker lost his starting job to Rashard Mendenhall earlier this season, and the sixth-year veteran has seen only spot duty since the middle of October.
What he hasn't done since a toe injury and Mendenhall's emergence left him with a vastly reduced role is sound off or pout. That has earned the Steelers' third all-time leading rusher the admiration of his coaches and teammates.
"Willie's the same," wide receiver Hines Ward said. "He's not been bitter or standoffish. He's embraced it."
"I'm not a cancer to any team," Parker said. "I keep a smile on my face when I come to work. Sometimes you want to be back against the wall so you can come out fighting."
Parker has had to battle through the most trying times he has experienced since bursting onto the scene in 2005 with 1,202 rushing yards and a record 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL.
Turf toe sidelined him for two games in October. Parker has averaged just 3.6 carries and 13.6 rushing yards in the nine games he has played since returning to action.
The two-time Pro Bowler got just one carry in two of those games. He went without a carry in the Steelers' 28-10 win at Denver on Nov. 9, the first time he has not gotten the ball in a game since his rookie season in 2004.
"When I find myself frustrated, I look back at how I became the starter," the 29-year-old Parker said, "how I became the guy."
Parker took over the feature back role from Jerome Bettis in 2005, and he has leaned on the latter during what has been a frustrating season for the 5-10, 209-pounder.
Bettis' influence on Parker can be seen in the way the latter has continued to mentor Mendenhall even after losing his job to the second-year running back. Bettis took a similar approach with Parker after the latter signed with the Steelers as an undrafted free agent.
"It just says a lot about his character," Mendenhall said of the pointers Parker has given him on and off the field. "He's the leader of the running backs (meeting) room."
The Steelers selected Mendenhall in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft, roughly four months after Parker broke his lower right leg.
Parker has battled injuries since then, while Mendenhall has blossomed this season.
He needs just 22 rushing yards tomorrow against the Ravens to reach the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Mendenhall has played so well that he is now the Steelers' every-down back.
"When they draft a first-round guy, everybody knows that he's going to play," Ward said. "It was the same way with (linebackers) Larry Foote and (Lawrence) Timmons."
Parker said he is a "a Steeler" though he politely declined comment when asked if he would consider re-signing with the team as a backup.
For now, Parker, who is making $4 million this season, is focused on finishing with his head held high — and with a flourish should the Steelers need him in the event of an injury to Mendenhall.
"He's a pro and a great person," Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said of Parker. "He's handled everything extremely well."
By the numbers
Here is a look at Steelers running back Willie Parker:
1 — Parker's NFL rank in rushing before breaking his lower right leg in the next-to-last game of the 2007 season
3.3 — Yards Parker has averaged per carry this season
4 — Seasons Parker has led the Steelers in rushing
4.25 — Yards per carry Parker has averaged during his career
24 — Career rushing touchdowns by Parker
223 — Parker's career-high for rushing yards in a game, which is a Steelers record
329 — Carries Parker averaged in 2006-07
5,270 — Parker's career rushing yards
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