Pittsburgh Steelers' patience pays off with Rashard Mendenhall

FORT WORTH, Texas

He is an elite running back. It is his nature to see trouble ahead, and to look for a way out.

So when the question arrives — and he knows it is coming — Rashard Mendenhall dips and darts. He gives you a nod, and takes the conversation another way. The query is left behind, and there's no catching the running back now.

All the while, he never pauses to consider whether the question might actually be a compliment.

Oh, in a way, the avoidance is understandable. The question is about the day in 2009 when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told Mendenhall he might as well leave his helmet at home for a game against Cincinnati because his focus in practice had not been acceptable. The very next week, Mendenhall gained a career-high 165 yards and officially replaced Willie Parker in the Pittsburgh backfield.

Naturally, the story makes Tomlin look good because he was firm and authoritative. It makes the average fan feel good because it is a tale of accountability at the highest level. And, presumably, it reflects poorly on Mendenhall for a lack of dedication.

But what if you go deeper than that?

What if you consider that Mendenhall was a 22-year-old still figuring out his place in the NFL? What if you understand that no one was accusing Mendenhall of lacking effort? What if you realize that the real point of the story is how he responded to the punish­ment?

"He was never a bad kid. He's always been low key, always been a humble," said Pittsburgh running backs coach Kirby Wilson, who was on the Buccaneers staff in 2002-03. "The unfortunate thing is you hear about this, and you get the wrong impression.

"He wasn't lazy. He was just missing some assignments. Wasn't it Woody Hayes who used to say, 'Tell them one time, and show them 1,000 times.' We tried showing him 1,000 times, and he would say, 'I got it, I got it, I got it.' But he wasn't really listening."

So are you repulsed by a kid who figured he knew it all, or impressed that he was willing to learn otherwise?

Because, by this point, there is no doubt that Mendenhall is on the right path. He has gained 2,381 yards since the start of last season, and only a half-dozen backs have gained more.

And, in the end, that should not come as a surprise. The Steelers had a pretty good idea of what they were getting when they drafted Mendenhall out of Illinois with the 23rd pick in the 2008 draft. They were so high on him, they didn't even include Mendenhall in their predraft interviews because they assumed he would have been off the board long before they picked.

He was a true junior at Illinois, so Mendenhall was only 20 at the time he was drafted. The Steelers figured there would be a learning curve, and they had time to be patient because Parker was still around.

What they eventually discovered with Mendenhall is that it is not easy to typecast him. He reads and writes poetry, and played clarinet in high school. When his rookie season was cut short by a shoulder injury, he joined a class at a Pittsburgh dance studio to stay in shape.

He wasn't just the only football player in the class, most of the time he was the only man. Even after the shoulder healed, Mendenhall decided he was getting enough out of the class to continue taking it. He has even taught a few dance classes for children.

"I'm really big into cross training, as it is. Whether it's swimming or riding a bike, doing different things to get your body to work in different ways," Mendenhall said. "With dancing, it's having full control over your body. Through dancing I feel a lot more limber. And as a running back I feel it helps the creativity and moving hole to hole and breaking out of tackles.

"I have full control of my body and strength in the areas you don't normally work on."

If anyone knows about Mendenhall's body control, it is Tampa Bay. He shredded the Bucs defense for 153 yards on 19 carries early in the season while quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was still suspended.

He bounces off linebackers and breaks tackles like a bigger back, but Mendenhall is a few inches shy of being a 6-footer. The key to his running is taking angles and understanding leverage with his lower center of gravity.

At Super Bowl media day, Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett told Mendenhall that he used to visualize his assignments in the playbook before each game. Mendenhall does the opposite. As soon as a game ends, he often will go home and cue up a replay to watch which lanes he ran through and to see if he could have made better choices.

The idea, he said, is to learn to be more instinctive. To recognize what's going to happen before it happens.

"Reaction, as a running back, is more important than anything," Mendenhall said.

Which is sort of the story of his career.

The one-game benching was the result of a mistake. An improper read of the situation.

Mendenhall saw it, reacted to it and corrected it.

Since then, there has been no looking back.

Pittsburgh Steelers' patience pays off with Rashard Mendenhall 02/03/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 4, 2011 7:09am]

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