When Rashard Mendenhall went down on the field last New Year’s Day in Cleveland my first thought was: “Dang, the Steelers’ best all-around Back is going to miss the postseason.” Then when I saw the replay of when Mendenhall went down, my next thought was: “Dang, he might miss most of the 2012 regular season as well. Crying shame because it will be his contract year.” As much as I hoped it would not be so, my forecast was eventually proven correct because according to G.M. Kevin Colbert, it now appears like Rashard’s knee injury will force him to begin the 2012 season on the Physically Unable to Perform List (PUP). If placed on the PUP List, Mendenhall will miss the team’s first 6 games of the season (7 Weeks), and be eligible to return in Week 8. As unfortunate as Mendenhall’s absence sounds to some of us, there are some reasons why the Steelers and Rashard might actually benefit from his placement on PUP List to begin the season. With that in mind, I have decided to break down some positives which both parties might take away from the situation in the event Mendenhall is “Physically Unable to Perform” until Week 8 in 2012.
5. Roster Spot Open
If Mendenhall is forced/elects to sit, a roster spot which was supposed to be occupied by him will in turn open up and be ready to be filled by a hungry young player or a savvy veteran competing to be a Steeler in 2012. Who will eventually fill the spot, and at what position will be an interesting thing to watch as Training Camp and the preseason wind down in the coming months. Will it be another Running Back like Baron Batch, John Clay, or Jonathan Dwyer? What about another Offensive Lineman like Chris Scott, Trai Essex, or one of the Undrafted Rookies like Ryan Lee? Possibly an Outside Linebacker like the Undrafted Adrian Robinson or Brandon Lindsey? A backup Safety like a Myron Rolle or Da’mon Cromartie-Smith? Whatever the case may be, somebody will come out a winner in this situation, and likely be given at least 7 Weeks of time to spend on the Steelers’ roster and develop their skill sets, provide depth, or both with Mendenhall sidelined.
4. More Time to Rehab
I do not feel that I need to explain this one too much, but here is my thinking. Because his knee injury happened late in the regular season, Mendenhall’s recovery window is a bit smaller than say somebody like Jamaal Charles who sustained a knee injury during the first quarter or so of 2011. At least to me, seven extra Weeks to rehab and condition for Mendenhall will be a huge plus as opposed to him being forced to begin the preseason and regular season on the active roster and not ready to contribute. Any time to rehab any injury without forcing a player back on the field is an absolute luxury, and both the Steelers and Mendenhall will likely be glad to take advantage of such an opportunity where both parties win.
3. Motivated Mendenhall
As I alluded to before, Mendenhall will be entering the final year of his contract this season. If Mendenhall is forced to sit out almost half of the regular season because of his injury, it is almost certain that he will be running for a new deal once he is able to return. With likely three guys ahead of him on the depth chart by the time he would come back (Isaac Redman, Chris Rainey, Batch/Clay/Dwyer), Mendenhall will need to be hungry and ready to up his game to a new level if his body allows him to do it. Even if Mendenhall is relegated to a backup role in the event that one or some combination of the aforementioned guys do a stellar job, he will still be looking to run harder for a new contract with the Steelers or another club in 2013.
2. Possible Insurance
This one sort of piggy-backs off of numbers 3 & 4, but Mendenhall might be able to provide a big boost to this talented but extremely inexperienced rushing attack if his knee is good to go at midseason. I hate to be a “Negative Nancy,” but consider the following: Maybe Redman underwhelms early in the year and cannot get on track as a 20+ Carry per game guy, and the “RB by Comittee” Pittsburgh will employ this season with unproven players such as Chris Rainey, Baron Batch, Jonathan Dwyer, John Clay, etc. will turn out sub-par performances in Weeks 1-7 of the regular season. If this series of unfortunate events happens, the veteran Mendenhall could be ready to step in and help the Offense and shoulder some of the load in the running game. Mendenhall has far and away more Touches over the last three seasons at the professional level than any of these younger guys, and could prove to be a valuable asset if injuries or poor play occur.
1. Fresh Legs
In the event that Mendenhall is given an extended vacation to rehabilitate his knee, it will almost assuredly give Rashard something he has needed over the course of the last few seasons: rest. During the 2009-2011 seasons, Mendenhall received 860 total Touches (794 Carries, 66 Catches) and was Pittsburgh’s go-to threat in the running game over said span. At a rate of 280 Touches per season, it was not like Mendenhall was receiving Adrian Peterson numbers of balls coming his way. Regardless, Rashard received a substantial amount of work and took quite a pounding behind an inexperienced, and at times less than talented Offensive Line overall.
If allowed to come back in Week 8, Mendenhall could return to the lineup as fresh as he likely has been since his 2nd year in the League when he missed almost three quarters of his Rookie campaign due to a shoulder injury. At midseason, Mendenhall would be able to provide a secondary option in the backfield in addition to Redman, who is expected to tote the rock more than anybody on the roster this year, and help to take the pressure off of a guy like Isaac who has not received more than 110 Carries and 128 Touches overall in a year over his three year career. Working Rashard back slowly but surely if he can perform up to par will be of the utmost importance. Yet if he is able to come back, getting a guy like Mendenhall 7-10 combined Touches per game on the ground and through the air near the end of the season would be huge for a team like the Steelers which will likely be playing January and hopefully beyond football again this season.
I understand that this is a “glass-half-full” post, and we will not know the status of Mendenhall until he is ready to play in games and added to the active roster. Nevertheless, it cannot hurt this Offense to have another weapon at its disposal, and adding one at midseason like Mendenhall if he is placed on the PUP List is an added bonus for Pittsburgh as they move forward. I earnestly hope that Rashard can come back healthy and that Pittsburgh can find a way to use him in an effective manner along with the other Backs which will compete for playing time and roster spots this season. Who knows? Maybe there could be some positives to a situation where Mendenhall sits for a bit and eventually comes back? And hey, maybe there will be no positives. But as I stated before, all we can do is wait and watch.
Statistics Courtesy of Steelers Team Page on ESPN.com