Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is either incredibly stubborn, incredibly stupid, or a little from Column A and a little from Column B. Announced recently this week, Rashard Mendenhall will be the starting running back this Sunday against the Browns over Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman. Each of these three men have different running styles, but Dwyer has by far experienced the most consistent success. Yet the indecisive, twinkle toed Mendenhall gets the start. Which stirs the question in my head – Would Mike Tomlin ever start Jerome Bettis if he were on this roster?
Despite a prolonged recovery and a very mediocre return, the ever inconsistent Mendenhall gets the green light. It’s becoming very clear that Tomlin either favors the man or the style when it comes to determining who starts over another player. Forget stats, forget situational match-ups. Tomlin has made what most of Steeler Nation would deem as strange choices when it comes to personel (like last week) – Leftwich over Batch, Redman over Dwyer, Ziggy Hood over Cameron Heyward. For whatever reason, Tomlin favors a certain player or a certain style of play regardless of situationally who would be better. Batch was the better choice due to Lefty’s slow delivery, Dwyer has outperformed Redman and Mendenhall, and Hood has been nothing but trouble while Heyward is at least making a difference on the defensive line. It’s problematic and he’s setting his team up for trouble instead of success.
In the case of Dwyer vs. Mendenhall at the running back position, Mendenhall’s slow recovery and weak performance in game situations should automatically put him in the #3 slot. The fact that Dwyer has been the better back all season – stats and situationally – should make this nullify any case for the other running backs. He is averaging a solid yard more per carry than his closest teammate (and that’s Redman not Mendy). He has over one hundred yards more in only four carries more than Redman. The stats favor Dwyer. Dwyer’s running style is straight north/south running. His legs churn until the whistle blows. His low center of gravity and strength combine for an agility that allows him to bounce off of would be tacklers. His YAC (yards after contact) is astounding. Using the Redskins game as an example, Dwyer had 17 carries for 107 yards where 68 of those yards came from after getting hit. That’s 63% of his yard total came after getting hit. Even more impressive, of his 122 yards against the Bengals, 114 of them came after first contact. That is very impressive stuff and is almost impossible to not compare this kid to ‘The Bus.’ This kid is putting up numbers similar to when Bettis was in his prime here at Pittsburgh. Bettis’ highest yards per carry was 4.8. Dwyer is .2 yards off that mark. His bruising style of running wears down defenses and he is the right situational guy considering the dink and dunk nature of the offense.
But, here we are finding ourselves scratching our heads over the choice to start Mendy over Dwyer. Is it the style of play? Does Tomlin favor the speedster over the pounder despite results? If we replaced Dwyer with the 2001 Jerome Bettis (11 games, 225 carries, 1,072 yards, 4.8 YPC), would Tomlin still pick Mendenhall over Bettis? Or what about the 2004 Jerome Bettis whose fewer seasonal yards still translated into 20% of his carries resulting in a first down?
I know what you’re thinking – ‘Of course Tomlin would start Bettis. He’s The Bus.’ But to tell you the truth, I’m not so confident that Tomlin would take a back of Bettis’ stature (even in his prime of ’97-’99) and start him over someone like Rashard Mendenhall. Based on all of Tomlin’s decisions up to this point over the last two seasons, I place some serious doubt on his ability to pick the right guy for the right job. And, if he’s not good at that, it defines his ultimate Tomlin’ism – ‘Starters in waiting’ – as the biggest cop-out and most reckless kind of management style. Hey, if I just go ahead and label the whole team as ‘starters in waiting,’ I can just put anyone in there despite my lack of ability to choose correctly and subtextually put all the blame on the player. Sounds like an extreme position to place him in, but after a current 6-4 season and a less than favored end to last season, is it unrealistic?
I hope that the Steelers don’t suffer from another poor decision from Tomlin to start Mendenhall over Dwyer. The running game will be critical against the Browns. A loss to the Browns will all but seal the Steelers fate of looking on the outside in and quite possibly watching the playoffs from their couches this year.
Just because you pay the man, doesn’t mean you need to play the man. How’s that for a new Tomlin’ism?