Running Back by Committee? First Let’s Try Steelers Keeping RB1 & RB2 Healthy for a Full Season

The Steelers failure to reach a long-term deal with Le’Veon Bell has prompted many fans to call for Pittsburgh to lift the franchise tag, let Le’Veon Bell walk and rely on running back by committee.

Sounds feasible on paper. (Actually it doesn’t.) But even if it, there’s a problem:

  • During Mike Tomlin’s tenure, the Steelers have struggled to keep their 1st and 2nd string running backs healthy.

The tendency took root in 2007 and has continued almost unabated since then. In 2007, Mike Tomlin vowed to run Willie Parker until “the wheels fell off.” The wheels fell off in week 16, forcing the Steelers to start Najeh Davenport in the playoffs with Verron Haynes coming off the couch as a backup.

Le'Veon Bell, Steelers running back injuries

Le’Veon Bell injured in the 2014 season finale vs. Bengals. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP, via SportsNet.ca

In 2008 the Steelers planned to use both Willie Parker and Rashard Mendenhall. A week 3 Willie Parker injury led to Mendenhall’s first start in week 4, where Baltimore broke his collar bone. Fortunately, the Steelers had solid running back depth with Mewelde Moore and Gary Russell filling the void until Parker’s return.

  • The Steelers kept their top two running backs relatively healthy in 2009 and 2010, with Willie Parker only missing a handful of games in ’09.

The Steelers streak continued in 2011 until Rashard Mendenhall tore his ACL in the season finale against Cleveland, as Isaac Redman started in the playoff Tebowing in Denver (for the record, Redman rushed for 121 yards on 17 carries.)

In 2012 the Steelers employed a variant of running back by committee, rotating carries and starts between Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and Rashard Mendenhall. Injuries contributed to this situation, but Mike Tomlin also wanted one of the trio to establish himself as the starter. None of them did.

  • The Steelers unhealthy running back syndrom returned with a vengeance in 2013.

Rookie Le’Veon Bell injured his Lisfranc in Latrobe, leaving Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling and Felix Jones as the running back committee. Problem? LaRod Stephens-Howling’s Steeler career ended after 8 touches and Isaac Redman was already playing with injures that would end his career before Halloween.

In 2014 the Steelers made a wise disciplinary move in cutting LeGarrette Blount, but that forced them to sign Ben Tate after Le’Veon Bell’s pre-playoff injury. In 2015 injuries and suspension limited Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams to 5 join appearances, and DeAngelo Williams season finale injury at Cleveland forced Pittsburgh to start Fitzgerald Toussaint and Jordan Todman in the playoffs.

Any plans the Steelers had to spell Le’Veon Bell with DeAngelo Williams in 2016 went out the window when Williams injured his knee in week 6, limiting the tandem to 4 games together.

And of course last season the Steelers only opted to give James Conner a handful of carries, but an injury against New England in week 14 forced the Steelers to sign Stevan Ridley two weeks before the playoffs.

Calk it up to fate or chalk it up to mistake, but Mike Tomlin cannot seem to kept his top two running backs healthy, which doesn’t bode well for a shift to running back by committee. Or does it?

Counterpoint: Could Running Back by Committee Be the Cure?

In On Writing, Stephen King advises authors against plotting out stories in favor of putting characters in situations and then following them to their conclusion. King’s lesson is relevant to sports blogging, because sometimes your conclusions can morph into something else as you write.

  • This is one of those times.

Mike Tomlin has seen his running backs suffer injuries early in the season (Parker and Mendenhall in ’08, Bell and Redman in ’13, Bell in ’15 and Williams in ’16.) But the most devastating running back injuries have occurred late in the season (Mendenhall in ’11, Bell in ’14, Williams in ’15, Bell in the 2016 AFC Championship).

Both the laws of attrition and laws of probability would suggest that running back by committee could mitigate these dangers.

Moral of the Story? Better Running Back Depth In Order

In the final analysis, I’m not ready to join the chorus calling for the Steelers to rescind the franchise tag and part ways with Bell. This tweet sheds a little light on my thinking:

That isn’t to say that the Chuck Noll’s offenses struggled to run the ball with Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson and Walter Abercrombie. They didn’t. Nor could Mark Malone and David Woodley provide the type of air support that Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown provide today.

  • But Le’Veon Bell offers more to the Steelers 2018 offense than would a modern day equivalent of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie.

And James Conners, Stevan Ridley and Jaylen Samuels have yet to prove they’re modern day equivalents of Pollard, Jackson and Abercrombie. But perhaps they can provide the type of quality and quantity of depth at running back behind Le’Veon Bell that the franchise hasn’t enjoyed since 2008….

…You remember, the season that ended at Super Bowl XLIII.

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Justifying Steelers Faith in Landry Jones as Backup Quarterback

In case you haven’t been paying attention because you’re a little too busy gnashing your teeth over the Pittsburgh Steelers lack of free-agent activity, Pittsburgh inked backup quarterback Landry Jones to two-year contract that will average $2.2 million annually.

  • If you have been paying attention or are just finding this out, chances are, you’re not very happy with this development.

After all, you may be one of the many fans who consider Landry Jones the worst backup in the NFL. Why do you think this way? In addition to the four interceptions he threw in an exhibition loss to the Eagles at Heinz Field last August, Jones has looked kind of shaky in his 16 career appearances (four starts). He’s completed 85 of 141 passes for 1,071 yards, while throwing seven touchdowns to six interceptions.

Landry Jones, Carson Palmer, Landry Jones Steelers backup quarterback, Steelers vs Cardinals

Landry Jones and Carson Palmer talk after Jones relief win over the Arizona Cardinals in October 2014. Photo Credit: Don Wright, AP via Arizonasports.com

So why are Landry Jones’ numbers so underwhelming, so blah? Maybe it’s because he’s a backup quarterback, who has occasionally filled in for a franchise-caliber passer in one Ben Roethlisberger.

Good starting quarterbacks are a rare find, and those with the Hall of Fame credentials that Ben Roethlisberger possesses are even rarer. Therefore, when that guy’s backup takes his place for any length of time, the drop-off is going to be noticeable.

  • Back to those simply good starting quarterbacks. Just how rare of a find are they?

They are so rare, Brian Hoyer, a 31-year old journeyman quarterback with 8,600 yards and 31 starts on his resume, just got $10 million in guaranteed money to be the 49ers signal-caller over the next two seasons.

Meanwhile, Mike Glennon, who hasn’t started a game in the NFL since 2014 and threw for just 75 yards last season, signed a three-year contract with the Bears for $45 million, with $18.5 million of it guaranteed.

  • Will Hoyer and Glennon pan out for their new teams? That remains to be seen, but if either one of them winds up out of a job next season, that wouldn’t be a shocker.

Last season, Brock Osweiler parlayed the seven starts and 1,967 passing yards he accumulated while filling in for the legendary Peyton Manning in 2015 into a four-year, $32 million contract from the Texans.

After a more than forgettable stint in Houston, Osweiler is now a member of the Browns, who acquired him in a trade on Thursday (and word is that the Browns are trying to trade Osweiler to another team or could cut him outright).

What’s my point in all of this? If it’s that hard to find a starting quarterback in the NFL, how can you expect the Steelers to find a better backup than Landry Jones?

  • Are there better backups in the NFL than Jones?

I’m sure there are. Would any of those backups lead the Steelers to a string of victories if Ben Roethlisberger were to suffer a serious injury? Probably not.

Landry Jones, Todd Haley, Steelers vs Cardinals

Todd Haley gives Landry Jones instructions as he heads to the field to face the Cardinals. Photo Credit: Jared Wickerham, Getty Images via LA Times

Landry Jones has been in offensive coordinator Todd Haley’s system since Pittsburgh selected him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The reason Jones was brought in and groomed to be the backup was because the front office and coaching staff wanted someone who could step in at a moment’s notice and run the offense.

You remember what happened two years ago, when Michael Vick was signed just weeks prior to the start of the season and thrust into action in Week 3, following an MCL sprain suffered by Roethlisberger.

Mike Vick, who had only about six weeks to learn the playbook, was mostly ineffective, as the offense struggled mightily.

  • Does the offense run like a well-oiled machine under Jones? No, but at least the playbook and the system both stay the same.

In the grand-scheme of things, there is nothing less interesting to talk about than a team’s backup quarterback. Unless of course you live in Pittsburgh and the starter is Mark Malone, Bubby Brister, Neil O’Donnell or Kordell Stewart. Then you positively LOVE talking about starting the backup quarterback until reality reveals that David Woodley, Todd Blackledge, and Mike Tomczak really didn’t offer the Steelers a better chance to win….

…But that’s another conversation.

As we close, however, let’s concede that if Landry Jones becomes the Steelers starter for more than a couple of three games, Pittsburgh IS going to suffer for it. But let’s also remember that the same is true for just about any other NFL team, and that the Steelers could do worse at QB Number 2.

  • Therefore, just accept the fact that Landry Jones is the Steelers backup quarterback.

If you’re STILL fretting over that fact, then remember this – having Le’Veon Bell behind him and Antonio Brown in front of him will make Landry Jones a lot better quarterback. And besides, there seriously are more important things to worry about.

Struggling to keep up with Steelers free agency? Click here for our Steelers 2017 Steelers Free Agent tracker and/or click here for all Steelers 2017 free agency focus articles.

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Steelers Throwback Thursday: Mark Malone’s 5 Touchdown Game vs. the Colts in 1985

Three Pittsburgh Steelers quarterbacks have thrown for at least five touchdowns in a game. Terry Bradshaw is obviously one of them. Ben Roethlisberger is another (Big Ben in fact has done it four times). But who was the third?

Surely someone like the legendary Bobby Layne, right? And if it wasn’t him, certainly it was Neil O’Donnell, Kordell Stewart or maybe even a gunslinger like Tommy Maddox, right? Nope.

Try Mark Malone.

mark malone, steelers, 5 touchdowns, former steelers quarterbacks

Former Steelers quarterback Mark Malone in 1986; Photo Credit: Rick Stewart/Getty Images

  • Yes, you read correctly, Mark Malone once threw 5 touchdown passes in game.

Mark Malone, who played for the Steelers for eight years in the 1980s and was the team’s primary starting quarterback from  mid-way through the ’84 campaign until the Steelers traded Malone to the Chargers (for an 8th round pick) following the ’87 season, was never a fan-favorite based the fact that he had to replace a future Hall of Famer and, obviously, his poor career stats.

Malone Not Alone in  Succeeding the Blond Bomber…

Malone was the Steelers first round pick in the 1980 NFL Draft, just months after they won Super Bowl XIV, their 4th championship in six years behind the legendary Terry Bradshaw.  Was Malone, a magnificent athlete who passed for 3,388 yards and rushed for another 1,344 during his three years at Arizona State,  going to be groomed as the heir apparent to the Blond Bomber?

  • It didn’t necessarily seem so at the time.

As Malone explained to New York Times in January of 1985 as he prepared to face Miami in the 1984 AFC Championship game, how could he ever replace Bradshaw, who was just 31 years old when the youngster was drafted?

When I was drafted by the Steelers, friends back home in San Diego asked, ‘How will you ever get a chance to play with Bradshaw there?

But, again, Malone was so physically gifted that when Lynn Swann was injured heading into a Week 10 match-up in Seattle during the ’81 season, Steelers head coach Chuck Noll asked him to play wide-receiver. While Malone only caught one pass, it went for a 90-yard touchdown (a franchise record that stood for years).

  • Unfortunately for Malone, he injured his knee in the game against the Seahawks that would require surgery in the offseason and force him to miss all of 1982.

Even after Bradshaw retired following the 1983 season and Cliff Stoudt departed for the USFL, the Steelers acquired David Woodley from the Dolphins prior to the 1984 campaign, and he ultimately beat-out Malone for the starting job.

But, David Woodley wasn’t up to the job, and Malone became the permanent starter in the second half of the season, as he led the ’84 Steelers to five victories, a 9-7 record and Chuck Noll’s last AFC Central Division title.

Among  those victories was an upset over the eventual Super Bowl champion 49ers in Week 7 (San Francisco’s only loss in ’84 and the 1st of two Noll/Malone wins over Walsh/Montana) and a 52-24 thrashing of the Chargers in Week 13 at old Three Rivers Stadium; in the blow-out win, Malone passed for 253 yards and four touchdowns and, according to his Wikipedia page, became the first quarterback in team history to complete over 80 percent of his passes in a game (18 of 22).

  • Other notable performances during the ’84 campaign occurred in the postseason.

Mark Malone helped the Steelers become the first road team to win a playoff game in Denver, after a 24-17 victory over the Broncos in the divisional round.  One week later, he threw for 312 yards, three touchdowns and three interceptions, as Pittsburgh fell to the Dolphins, 45-28, in the AFC Championship game in Miami’s Orange Bowl.

1985 Steelers Appeared Poised for Greatness

While Mark Malone didn’t make anyone forget about Terry Bradshaw during the second half of the ’84 season, he certainly did enough to earn the starting nod moving forward, providing the perfect backdrop for Mark Malone’s shining moment.

  • To understand this, you’ve got to understand the context in which the Steelers started the 1985 season.

The 85 Steelers were a new team with a mostly revamped roster that included an exciting, young receiver named Louis Lipps, 1984’s NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.  And this retooled roster had renewed Pittsburgh’s enthusiasm with three-straight playoff-appearances and provided objective evidence that the Steel Curtain was poised to rise again.

  • Pittsburgh opened the ’85 campaign at home against the Colts on September 8.

Malone, coming off several impressive performances the year before, had the game of his life in-front of a sell-out crowd, completing 21 of 30 passes for 287 yards and five touchdowns, as he tied Bradshaw’s single-game record just one year after he retired.

To add to Malone’s career-day, he also scored on a one-yard touchdown run giving him a hand in 6 touchdowns in a 45-3 blow-out victory.

  • According to the young quarterback, whom the Colts defenders failed to sack all day, it was a total team effort.

As Malone clarified to the UPI after the game:

I thought I had a good game. But as I’ve said in the past–and I think it’s extremely important–when two receivers run good routes and those guys in front are giving you time and you’re running the ball, well, you’re going to have good days.

Those two receivers Malone was referring to were Lipps, who caught nine passes for 154 yards and  three touchdowns, and the legendary John Stallworth, who also tallied a score. Chuck Noll’s Steelers had struggled in the early 80’s, but Malone’s 5 touchdown game on opening day vs. the Colts, Pittsburgh appeared poised to dominate the second half of the decade.

  • Unfortunately, the Steelers finished 7-9 and suffered their first losing season since 1971; as for Malone, he only played in 10 games in ’85 due to an injury.

Malone started a combined 26 games over the next two seasons, but the playoff-less trend continued, as Pittsburgh failed to quality in 1986 and again in 1987. Whatever scorn the fans initially felt for the embattled quarterback intensified during these years, as he threw  just 21 touchdown passes to a whopping 37 interceptions.

Those fans, and many reporters, who hardly criticized Mark Malone during his time in Pittsburgh certainly had Just Cause. In eight seasons with the Steelers, Malone had 60 touchdown passes to 81 interceptions and a passer-rating of 50.2.

  • In fact, in his final season as a starter, Malone had 46.4 passer rating (yes, that forty six point four)

Malone, who has had long-lasting success as a sportscaster and sports personality after retiring, never had a career even approaching that of a decent NFL quarterback.

But on opening day of the 1985 regular season Mark Malone authored in one of the most underrated quarterback performances in Pittsburgh Steelers history. For that he should be proud.

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