Steelers Fever – The Tao Of T.J. Duckett

The Tao Of T.J. Duckett – By Neal Coolong

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

I still keep in close contact with a bunch of friends from high school. Football friends are friends for life…who discuss football. That’s the subject of the bulk of our conversations. More specifically, we discuss the Great Male Equalizer: Fantasy Football.

Fantasy Football has made the biggest impact on male friendships since beer was first produced in mass quantities. Every conversation that group of friends and I have from May to January invariably includes FFL in some way. It usually trumps other life activities such as work, marriage and children.

It even affects our vocabulary. Late in the summer of 2003, my buddy Cerk drafted Atlanta power back T.J. Duckett. Granted, he went in the later rounds – and this was before the Falcons became the elite running team in the league – but Cerk was chastised vehemently for this decision. Because of this, we even stopped using the politically incorrect verb “sucks” and replaced it with “Ducketts” to describe those things/people we felt were of low quality. I probably spearheaded this change more than any of us.

“Hey, did you hear the new Coldplay album?”
“No, I hate Coldplay. That band seriously Ducketts.”

(They do, though.)

So it can be easily imagined how much fun the guys had when rumors arose about Pittsburgh trading for the former Michigan State star right before the 2006 Draft. Suddenly, I was reminded of the flirtation the Steelers had with Ron Dayne a few years back (worrying about that took a year off my life). Then I heard catcalls about “Deactivated” Duce Staley.

And, of course, anything and everything about Kordell Stewart.

But ya know what? How bad of an idea was it for the Steelers to go as far as to propose a trade with Atlanta for the under-used Duckett? I understand Cerk’s inclination to rip on me about it, given the amount of abuse I dished out three years ago, but this might have actually worked out well. For both the Steelers and for FFL, which is a rare combination.

Well, Atlanta didn’t accept the offer. Insiders said it was for third round pick this year and a fourth round pick in next year’s draft. Bummer. Kind of anti-climactic. But Duckett is a free agent after this season, making the possibility of the Steelers either dealing for him now, or going after him on the open market, still valid.

Everyone’s got their opinion on the whole Fast Willie, Healthy-Scratch Staley and Verron Haynes situation. Be honest: Is anyone really optimistic about this battle for the top running back spot? This isn’t to say the Steelers running back position is cursed like all the centers for the Cleveland Browns, but it’s not as if any of the three of the Steelers options have one particular skill that so far outweighs their negatives. All three of them are going to share the carries, but there won’t be a discernible difference between the leading rusher and the third rusher.

Sound familiar? Like, the Falcons? Duckett has been in that role nearly his entire career, but he hasn’t won anything. The Falcons have been successful almost entirely because the NFC is weaker top to bottom than the ligaments of any Cleveland Browns marquee acquisition (read: Bentley, LeCharles, Winslow Jr., Kellen, Private First Class).

Duckett won’t get the yards Dunn or Vick will this year, but he won’t have the amount of carries either. Sounds like a change of scenery and perhaps some added responsibility would bring him to new heights. I’m sure he’s hungry for the opportunity, he’s listed at 254 pounds.

The last time the Steelers traded a middle-round pick for a power back worked out pretty well. It was for that guy now working the booth on NBC whom Cincinnati fans booed during their game against Washington Aug. 13. Not that I blame them. Honestly, who has more in common with the beloved Jerome Bettis, Duce Staley or T.J. Duckett? Let’s just say Duckett is a skilled bowler and a lover of cheese steaks.

If that comparison is a bit less reflective of the contemporary NFL, take a look at LaMont Jordan. A big back who can catch the ball, but, with the Jets in 2004, he is stuck behind a franchise guy in Curtis Martin. He goes to Oakland, where he is the featured back, and has a dominant year. All he needed was a chance and a system that doesn’t a promote run-by-committee style.

As for the Steelers, they get that ghetto-bootied back with a nose for the goal line and the ability to flatten pathetically weak Bengals defensive backs. Also, Duckett’s resume doesn’t include multiple injuries, a 50 percent games-played/games-eligible rate (Staley) or the lack of ability to run between the tackles against good defenses (Parker). He’s also had a bigger role on his team than just a third-down back or the captain of the Mop-Up Duties team (Haynes).

From a management perspective, it’s not really a bad investment, either. The Steelers pick up more compensatory picks (extra draft picks from the league to make up for losing players to free agency) than anyone else in the league. They just lost three starters this year – FS Chris Hope, WR Antwaan Randle-El and DE Kimo VonOelhoffen. That will give them a few picks at least, perhaps one at the end of the third round, which is the highest compensatory pick possible. While a team can’t trade the comp picks, they have a cushion under them if they did happen to trade their third-round pick. Pittsburgh would still have one likely no more than eight picks later, in that round. Trade down eight spots in the third round for a proven NFL veteran power back? Sounds good.

There’s the free agency thing, which could be the reason why Atlanta didn’t pull the trigger. The Falcons have paid attention to their defense over the last two years, and look to be, again, one of the best units in the league. But without a successful running game, Vick will be even more exposed as the running back taking snaps instead of the quarterback he’s being paid to be, and Patrick Kearney and DeAngelo Hall will have to be like All-World LB Alvin Mack says in “The Program,” and “pitch shutouts now.”

Dunn was a world-beater last year, going off for 1,400 yards, with Duckett taking the short-yardage situations, including the goal line. But Dunn is one of the few running backs in the league who is featured in Madden ’97. With Dunn’s age, a lack of adequate backups and the Falcons predicating the bulk of their offense on a power/finesse combination, they don’t seem to be in a good position to replace either one within the next year or so. Keeping Duckett seems imperative.

As far as the Steelers go, there has to be a large amount of weight put into the fact Pittsburgh has large components to their Super Bowl championship unsigned as of the end of the 2006-07 season. Even assuming the team isn’t paying rookie WR Santonio Holmes’ court costs, they still might be a bit behind the 8-ball as far as the salary cap going into next year. Their secondary is the most glaring unit of contract uncertainty – most importantly, SS Troy Polamalu.

Dog the Bounty Hunter wouldn’t have a TV show if he didn’t sport a mullet. Pittsburgh would not have won the Super Bowl without Troy. “These are facts, ladies and gentlemen,” says Captain Jack Ross in A Few Good Men. “And they are undisputed.”

He’s gotta stay.

CB Ike Taylor has probably earned a significant raise after last season, and looks to step into the upper echelon of cornerbacks in the league this year. Those guys deserve to get paid, and rightfully should get it from the Steelers.

This says nothing of Alan Faneca, the anchor of the offensive line. Or Joey Porter, the loquacious linebacker. About eight Pro Bowls between the two of them. Both of their contracts expire at the end of this season.

But, Staley is going to have to not only win the starting job, but significantly widen the gap between he and Parker if he wants to wear a Steelers No. 22 jersey next season. That’s a decent chunk of cap room removed in the future.

Is Duckett a possible replacement? Is he going to play out this year, and look for a LaMont-Jordan-like contract next off-season? With his availability next year, will the Steelers cut ties to Duce and go for T.J.? What the hell does “T.J.” stand for anyway?

I don’t know, but I’m sure my friends and I will discuss it at great lengths.

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