Why Rashard Mendenhall’s Retirement is Revealing

In a move that surprised if not shocked the pro football world, Rashard Mendenhall, the man the Pittsburgh Steelers selected in the first round of the now ill-fated 2008 draft, has retired.

  • If Mendenhall’s move is surprising, it is also revealing.

While Mendenhall drew his share of scorn from sectors within Steelers Nation, much of that was due to the unorthodox views he aired. Serious fans, however, had a different issue.

  • They didn’t know what to make of Mendenhall. 

When Mendenhall was “On” he was one of the top backs in the league. When he wasn’t? Not so much.

The question for serious observers was simple – were Mendenhall’s flashes of greatness indicative of true talent waiting to be tapped or were they blips of peak performance courtesy of the upper end of the law of averages?

  • Mendenhall’s own actions made it harder to answer that question.  

After getting injured vs. Baltimore in October 2008, Mendenhall disappeared from the South Side, and instead opted to spend his days going to Pittsburgh’s museums. During his second season, he tripped on his first snap and barely got to the line of scrimmage. Week 3 saw him benched for failing to be “On the details.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had their share of bad luck in drafting running backs in early rounds that come with baggage – Greg Hawthorne and Walter Abercrombie are two other first rounders that come to mind. Tim Worley of the 1989 draft class blew is signing bonus up his nose. Second rounder Sidney Thornton was such a basket case that he moved ever the stoic Chuck Noll to say “Sidney Thornton’s problems are great and they are many.”

  • Mendenhall, it would seem, would be another in a long-line of disappointments. 

Then what did Mendenhall do? Well… Willie Parker got injured, forcing Mendenhall into the starting line up, where he steamrolled San Diego for 165 yards rushing. To say that he looked like a power-rusher in the style of Emmitt Smith would not be an exaggeration.

And then there were other games, such as the 2011 escape from Indy where Mendenhall plod along for 2.1 yards on 18 carries. Or the time later that year, when Mendenhall followed a 146 yard romp vs. Jacksonville, with a pitly 32 yard 13 carry effort vs. Arizona.

Its true. No one will ever confuse Mendenhall’s time in Pittsburgh with the golden age of Steelers run blocking. His offensive coordinator Bruce Arians regarded fullback as the FCC regards the f-word.

But fans always suspected there was something else afoot. How else to explain why the same player who could get himself up off of the deck on his own goal line, and run the length of the field to save a touchdown in ’09, while simply no-showing for a game 3 season’s later? Steelers Nation always suspected 2 and 2 wasn’t equally 4. And now that’s been confirmed.

  • Rashard Mendenhall simply doesn’t enjoy playing football that much.

And like Behind the Steel Curtain Editor Neal Coolong, yours truly salutes Mendenhall for having the courage to walk away from it all. As ESPN’s Scott Brown observes, Mendenhall is very intelligent, and has serious interest in both reading and writing, and he’s decided to follow that.

  • Mendenhall’s decision does suggest that he began his career with perhaps some latent ambivalence, and this could also explain the erratic highs and lows that characterized his performance.

The average NFL career is less than 4 years, and the life span of a running back’s time in pro football is even shorter. Mendenhall, at age 26, has a Super Bowl ring, another Super Bowl appearance, 5 seasons, and 2 thousand yard efforts on his resume. And now he’s decided that’s enough.

Steel Curtain Rising wish Rashard Mendenhall luck as he begins “Life’s Work.”

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2 thoughts on “Why Rashard Mendenhall’s Retirement is Revealing

  1. Great stuff, KT. I liked Mendenhall for as quirky as he was. Still the most talented running back to come into Pittsburgh since the days of Bettis-and that’s including Le’Veon Bell (for now).

    He never got the full credit he should have while playing in Pittsburgh. Not that he was a great running back, but he was a productive one on a team with a franchise quarterback.It’s not like the team needed No. 34 to carry the load. He was a great piece of the puzzle. Only his enigmatic personality prevented him from being a true fan favorite.

  2. Tony,

    I agree that Mendenhall got a bum rap from a lot of fans.

    And in terms of performance, he NEVER had the type of line that Bettis or Willie Parker had blocking for him.

    But I do think that its reasonable to say that his performance was inconsistent, these mitigating factors not withstanding.

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