By Scott Brown
Sunday, April 22, 2007
The Steelers hired former Bengals quarterback Ken Anderson to coach the position at which he once excelled. Willie Parker, their freshly minted Pro Bowl running back, further blurred the lines between fierce rivals when he befriended current Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer at the NFL's annual all-star game in Hawaii.
"I always looked at them as our rival and our enemy," Parker said of the Bengals, "but to sit down and have a conversation with him and hang out with him, I thought that was cool."
Parker is cool with something else that will be much more reassuring to Steelers fans: coach Mike Tomlin's intent to use more than one back to run the ball next season.
Parker could be upset by such a change, considering he rushed for 1,494 yards last season and scored 13 touchdowns.
But fitting for someone who plays a position that demands good vision, Parker sees the league-wide trend of teams using multiple backs to power their running game -- as well as the benefit of lightening the load for someone whose preferred playing weight is right around 210 pounds.
"You can't really turn selfish," Parker said of the probability of his getting fewer than the 337 carries he had in 2006. "I've been with two backs basically my whole career except last year, really. We wanted two backs, but we never really got in that situation where they put a lot of confidence in the other back."
Duce Staley never filled Jerome Bettis' role as the short-yardage complement to Parker, and Najeh Davenport didn't sign with the Steelers until September and spent much of the season getting acclimated with the offense.
As a result, Parker got 72 percent of the Steelers' carries and almost 50 more than he had in his first two NFL seasons combined.
He made the most of them, running up a rushing total that was exceeded only by LaDainian Tomlinson and Larry Johnson in the AFC.
Parker joined the two backs at the Pro Bowl and got to know Tomlinson. He also took the opportunity to ask the reigning NFL MVP about playing the position at which Tomlinson is widely regarded the best in the league.
"That's the only way you're going to get good: See what other guys are thinking when they're on the field," Parker said Saturday between the first of two minicamp practices at the Steelers' South Side facility.
Parker outraced good awhile ago. Still, he hasn't entirely left behind the player that rushed for fewer than 200 yards as a senior at the University of North Carolina and had to break into the NFL as an undrafted free agent.
Such humble beginnings still motivate him, while the specter of competition also will have Parker working with his personal trainer after minicamp, which concludes today.
Tomlin said Davenport, who played for the Packers before the Steelers picked him up, could be that second back he is looking for to complement Parker.
"He was part of a rotation in Green Bay when I first broke into the league down in Tampa. He was a guy we were always concerned about when Ahman Green wasn't in there," Tomlin said.
Davenport re-signed with the team and should be much more comfortable in the offense next season. Parker said he also expects the Steelers to pick a running back in next week's NFL draft.
If he welcomes the competition that is because no one pushes Parker harder than he does.
"You've got one chance," Parker said, "and I'm going to make the best of it"