Steelers Fever – Wee Willie Parker And The Little Back Mythology

Wee Willie Parker And The Little Back Mythology – By Fred Pasek

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

It borders on sadism, the lust in Steelers fans’ hearts for the sight of the big back lowering his shoulder and snapping a defender’s head back in a burst up the middle. It’s as though having a smaller back in the backfield would somehow be cheating, a dishonest way to gain yards like building a house of straw. But the true power of a power running game is work of the offensive line, not the back. Should the Steelers opt to start Willie Parker, all 5’10” 209 pounds of him, there is a very good chance that the running game would still be consider a power game in the eyes of the league. Yet myths abound about small backs, so let’s shed some light on them.

The first myth is that small backs are injured more frequently. Statistics would indicate that this is false. Parker weighs 209 pounds, if we designate any back that weighs 215 pounds or more as a big back and any back under 215 pounds as a small back, then looking at the 25 leading running backs from last year and the games they have missed due to injury over the course of their careers, small backs have missed 107 games out of 796 (13.4%) and big backs have missed 144 out of 976 (14.7%). The myth is false.

While it may appear that small backs get injured more often, bigger backs tend to take on tackles and they take more of a pounding. The evidence indicates that the size of the back is essentially irrelevant as to the probability of him getting injured. For every 225 pound Shaun Alexander and Corey Dillon who seem so indestructible, there is a 210 pound Curtis Martin, who is equally indestructible. For every 180 pound Warrick Dunn who seems to miss every other game, there is, well, a 242 pound Duce Staley.

The second myth is that while big backs wear down opposing defenses, little backs wear down themselves as the game progresses.

The following chart of the top 30 backs from last year illustrates how backs’ yards per carry are change depending on how many times a back has carried the ball and by quarter:

180-205 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
Carries 1-10 661 3,702 4.6
Carries 11-20 471 1,878 4.0
Carries 21-30 159 576 3.6
Tiki Barber, Warrick Dunn, Clinton Portis, Julius Jones, Bryan Westbrook
180-205 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
1st Quarter 366 1,743 4.8
2nd Quarter 334 1,372 4.1
3rd Quarter 321 1,273 4.0
4th Quarter 260 1,106 4.3
Total 1,281 5,494 4.3
Tiki Barber, Warrick Dunn, Clinton Portis, Julius Jones, Bryan Westbrook
206-215 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
Carries 1-10 649 2,809 4.3
Carries 11-20 502 2,373 4.7
Carries 21-30 201 915 4.6
Curtis Martin, Edgerin James, Reuben Droughns, Priest Holmes, Marshal Faulk
206-215 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
1st Quarter 369 1,686 4.6
2nd Quarter 333 1,524 4.6
3rd Quarter 339 1,541 4.5
4th Quarter 293 1,231 4.2
Total 1,334 5,982 4.5
Curtis Martin, Edgerin James, Reuben Droughns, Priest Holmes, Marshal Faulk
216-225 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
Carries 1-10 649 2,809 4.3
Carries 11-20 502 2,373 4.7
Carries 21-30 399 1,727 4.3
Shaun Alexander, Corey Dillon, Rudi Johnson, LeDanian Tomlinson, Domanik Davis, Ahman Green, Kevin Jones, Eddie Goins, Michael Pittman, Thomas Jones, Emmitt Smith, Chris Brown
216-225 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
1st Quarter 980 3,820 3.9
2nd Quarter 839 3,695 4.4
3rd Quarter 848 3,949 4.7
4th Quarter 624 2,719 4.4
Total 3,291 14,183 4.3
Shaun Alexander, Corey Dillon, Rudi Johnson, LeDanian Tomlinson, Domanik Davis, Ahman Green, Kevin Jones, Eddie Goins, Michael Pittman, Thomas Jones, Emmitt Smith, Chris Brown
226-235 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
Carries 1-10 402 1,717 4.3
Carries 11-20 303 1,346 4.4
Carries 21-30 101 354 3.5
Fred Taylor, Willis McGahee, Deuce McAllister
226-235 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
1st Quarter 236 904 3.8
2nd Quarter 189 706 3.7
3rd Quarter 208 990 4.8
4th Quarter 202 815 4.0
Total 835 3,415 4.1
Fred Taylor, Willis McGahee, Deuce McAllister
236-245 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
Carries 1-10 353 1,298 3.7
Carries 11-20 256 1,061 4.1
Carries 21-30 58 288 5.0
Jamal Lewis, Duce Staley, Kevan Barlow
236-245 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
1st Quarter 214 821 3.8
2nd Quarter 156 501 3.2
3rd Quarter 160 632 4.0
4th Quarter 135 689 5.1
Total 665 2,643 4.0
Jamal Lewis, Duce Staley, Kevan Barlow
246-255 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
Carries 1-10 116 389 3.4
Carries 11-20 69 290 4.2
Carries 21-30 55 232 4.2
Jerome Bettis
246-255 lbs RB’s ATTEMPTS YARDS YARDS PER CARRY
1st Quarter 49 165 3.4
2nd Quarter 56 233 4.2
3rd Quarter 59 217 3.7
4th Quarter 86 326 3.8
Total 250 941 3.8
Jerome Bettis

As the statistics would indicate, while it’s true that backs who are 205 pounds or lighter appear to wear down, backs above that weight are not so affected. The 5.1 yard average of the 236-245 pound backs makes the myth true, in the sense that the big backs appear to have their way with defenses in the 4th quarter, the average of those backs through the 1st three quarters is the worst among all weight classes, making only the final 10% of their carries the most effective. The backs in the 206 to 215 pound range had a steady yards per carry and their 4.6 yards per carry average in their carries after the 20th is second only to the 236-245 pound backs. As anyone who watched Muhammad Ali upset George Foreman can attest, speed can exhaust an opponent just as effectively as a body punch.

Were Parker to be selected the starter in Duce Staley’s absence, it would be wise for the coaching staff to keep and eye on his carries and to keep them around 25, but there is no reason to believe that carry #24 would be any less effective than carry #1. No, it may be more in the mentality that the Steelers may struggle with using the smaller back. The aura of the team is that opponents come to Heinz Field, are pummeled, and leave bruised for their next game. As a result, teams routinely lose the game after having played the Steelers, as the Steelers, in essence, soften them up for their next opponent. But the fans have adapted remarkably well to the defense becoming predicated on speed, and would soon find that it is in the effectiveness of an offense that they find their pride, not necessarily it the means.

It appears right now that Parker would be the most effective back for the Steelers to trot out as the starter if Duce Staley can’t go. If that is the case, then it would be foolish to start another back simply because of the small back myths.

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