In Tuesday morning’s weekly update, I wrote that Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall’s season-ending ACL tear was “a literally crippling blow to Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl chances.” Observant Grantland writer Bill Barnwell offered a contrary view:
Will [Mendenhall’s absence] really affect the Steelers heading into the playoffs, though? It’s debatable. Mendenhall certainly has the biggest name of any Steelers running back, but his production is positively ordinary. He’s only averaged 4.1 yards per carry on his 228 rushing attempts this year. Meanwhile, primary backup Isaac Redman has averaged 4.4 yards a pop on 110 attempts, while third-stringers Mewelde Moore and Jonathan Dwyer have combined for 280 yards on just 38 carries, for a rushing average in excess of seven yards.
It’s not totally uncommon for a backup to produce a rushing average superior to the starter, but that usually happens because the starter is accruing a large quantity of touches, including many in less-than-ideal situations for gaining consistent yardage. It’s hard to fathom that Mendenhall is such a back, since he’s only carried the ball about 15 times a game and had just one game this season with more than 19 carries. The DVOA statistic, which adjusts for quality of opposition and game situation, says that Redman and Mendenhall are virtually identical; Mendenhall’s DVOA is at 3.8 percent, while Redman’s is at 3.5 percent.
It would be one thing if Mendenhall had a history of success, but he now has 813 NFL attempts and a rushing average at those same 4.1 yards per carry. His case for being a star basically amounts to his status as a first-rounder and two big games in 2009 against the Chargers and Broncos, in which he combined for 320 yards against two below-average run defenses. He’s never developed into a reliable receiver, catching just 68 passes in four seasons. We hoped and expected that he would take a step forward this season after a somewhat disappointing 2010, but if anything, he had taken a step backward before the torn ACL.
If the Steelers can get Moore back from a sprained MCL to serve in his customary role as the third-down back, chances are that they won’t miss Mendenhall whatsoever.
My only rejoinders are a) Barnwell’s analysis fails to consider a durability notion (the effect on Mendenhall’s replacements of having to shoulder a heavier load), and b) the combination of Mendenhall’s absence and Ben Roethlisberger’s limitations due to his own injuries, which I mentioned on Tuesday. Still, given Barnwell’s recently proven successful playing of the NFL numbers this season, I’m inclined to yield to him on this sort of thing.