You're either on the bus or off the bus. Or so said Ken Kesey in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Granted, that was a different bus and a different time. But the question remains for running back Duce Staley who Steelers fans once hoped would replace The Bus, Jerome Bettis:
Are you with us?
Anybody with eyes knows that Staley has been a disappointment. So much so that on Sept. 9, the Steelers signed Najeh Davenport to the squad. Although Davenport's been injury-riddled throughout his career, the Steelers are still looking for a reliable counterpunch to Willie Parker. By the time this paper hits the streets, Staley might be unemployed. As of this writing, he's merely underemployed. And I don't understand why.
Like a prisoner on death row, he got a reprieve when the Steelers made their final roster cuts. Now let's see if Staley plays like it like this is his last chance and he's got nothing to lose. Because his level of productivity will reveal his level of dedication. Big man running.
Given all the givens of the Steelers' offense the reliance on the run, the fact that they love a big hammer-back as an option why didn't Staley use this offseason to showcase his abilities? He was a healthy scratch much of last season, so you'd think he'd show up at Latrobe like a man with something to prove like a man worthy of being the punishing back that has been a Steelers hallmark for years.
Instead, his performances were so underwhelming that the Steelers signed themselves another small back, rookie Patrick Cobbs. Heading into the third preseason game, coach Bill Cowher let slip that Staley was "working himself into running shape." Staley's a running back: Shouldn't he have been in "running shape" already?
And if Parker can run all season long like he did during the Sept. 7 opener against Miami, Staley may have lost his last chance to prove himself.
What happened to Staley? In his seven years with the Eagles, he missed only 14 games. He carried the ball 258 times in 1998 and averaged 4.1 yards per carry; in 1999 he had 325 carries at 3.9 yards a pop. He missed most of 2000 and a bit of 2001, but was back to a high level of productivity in 2002, carrying the ball 269 times at 3.8 yards per carry. In 2003, when the Eagles started going pass-crazy and spreading the ball around to multiple backs, Staley was anxious to come to a team that relied on the run.
It augured well for him, and for the Steelers, when he came to town. And, as we often forget, it started out well in Pittsburgh in 2004, before Staley went down with a season-ending hamstring injury. At the time, Staley was logging about 19 carries per game at 4.3 yards a crack.
But something has been lacking in Staley the past year-and-a -half. Physically, it may be too late for him to regain the youthful form that he showed with the Eagles; still, his recent injuries and attitude have started to look like malingering. And apathy. Can it be that a professional football player would rather model sideline apparel than get out there and play?
So let the Staley jokes commence. Will he make it through the bye week before ending up in the hot tub? How long before they start de-activating him again, to keep a much more valuable Chidi Iwuoma or Willie Reid on the game-day roster?
Of course, Parker's durability for a whole season is still untested. More to the point, he's not a traditional bruising Steelers back. The Steelers may need three good running backs before the season ends, so there's still a crease of light in the tunnel for Staley. But is he ready to hit that hole?
The fans will be quick to embrace Staley if he appears plugged into the team and produces this year. Redemption comes pretty easily for athletes.
Staley brought this on himself, and for now his only chance will come on the practice field, rather than Heinz Field. So, a word of advice to Mr. Staley: Get out there and do your best for your teammates, even if it's just in practice, because their opinion really should matter to you.