Late last week, the extremely tepid Willie Parker sweepstakes were finally settled when the running back signed an incentive-laden deal with the Washington Redskins. There were slight rumblings that Parker could return to the Steelers in a backup capacity, but even by his own admission, that didn't really seem like something he wanted to do. For most of us, it's been assumed Parker would be gone as early as late in the '08 season.
Fan bases often have crotchety and bizarre reasons (see: Donovan McNabb in Philadelphia) for not embracing certain players. In the case of Willie Parker in Pittsburgh, it was not being a 240-pound power back. There are very few teams where this would be an issue, but the Steelers are one of them. Decades of shitty quarterback play conditioned fans to think the only way to win was by churning down the field with 16-play drives, maybe gaining five yards at a clip. Even the media still buys into this orthodoxy when discussing the Steelers, despite the team not really subscribing to that identity for most of the past decade.
It was this rigidity of philosophy that made it difficult for Parker to raise to becoming a truly beloved figure, even though he certainly did enough to earn a healthy deal of affection. After all, FWP is the third-leading rusher in franchise history and holds the longest run in Super Bowl history. He was the starting back on two championship teams. But a large segment of Steelers fans never felt a tenth of the affection for him that they did for Jerome Bettis.
To an extent, that's understandable. Bettis is possibly a first ballot Hall of Famer. He was the team's signature star for a decade. But had FWP's career not been diminished by the broken fibula late in 2007, and the knee issues that followed, it's not inconceivable that he could have rivaled Bettis' career numbers with the team.
Jerome Bettis' best three-year span with the Steelers
'96 -- 1,431 rushing yards, 11 total TDs
'97 -- 1,665 yards, 9 TDs
'98 -- 1,185 yards, 3 TDs
4,281 yards, 23 TDs 4.23 YPC
Willie Parker's three years prior to injury
'05 -- 1,202 yards, 5 TDs
'06 -- 1,494 yards, 16 TDs
'07 -- 1,316 yards, 2 TDs
4,012 yards, 23 TDs 4.39 YPC
There's no denying that those are remarkably similar totals. Obviously, the Bus had considerably better career longevity and consistency. And you could reasonably argue that offenses for which Bettis put up those numbers didn't have the deep passing threat that the Steelers had during FWP's heyday. Still, before injuries significantly hampered his career, Parker assumed the mantle of Steelers feature back quite impressively (much better than Amos Zereoue and Richard Huntley, at least), even if there were plenty of folks unwilling to embrace him because he didn't truck defenders and generally do everything the Bus did.
Granted, during his first year or so as a starter, Willie wasn't the most disciplined rusher in the world. He'd hit the line before a hole had a chance to develop. He was (and still is) pretty terrible at catching the ball, though Bettis didn't exactly light up the world with his receiving skills out of the backfield either.
I wouldn't rule out the possibility that Parker could still be a decent contributor for the 'Skins, so long as they can cobble together even a workable offensive live. It might not work out that way, but I think we could stand to appreciate the brief span where FWP put up one of the two best three-year spans in the history of the franchise.