Parker's speed changes complexion of rushing attack

DETROIT -- The catchy nickname, "Fast Willie," is a bit of a misnomer.

Oh, it's appropriately descriptive enough, since Pittsburgh tailback Willie Parker, the other featured runner in Super Bowl XL, is plenty fast, having been clocked in the 40-yard dash at a breathtaking 4.28 seconds following his senior season in college. But until this season, when he won the Steelers' starting job in his second NFL campaign, Parker led more of a "hey, not so fast there, Willie" existence.

Which was difficult, at times, for Parker to reconcile.

"I'm not the kind of person who likes sitting around and wasting time," said Parker, who went to training camp at St. Vincent's College last summer as the No. 4 tailback on the Pittsburgh depth chart. "For me, I want everything to happen, like, right now, you know? But patience, hey, it's a funny thing. It can humble you but, in the end, it can also make you a better person."

And in a crowded Pittsburgh backfield that includes future Pro Football Hall of Fame member Jerome Bettis, onetime Philadelphia Eagles starter Duce Staley, and underrated third-down back Verron Haynes, there is little doubt anymore that Parker is the person best-suited to be the starter in a running game that has undergone an evolution of sorts since his emergence at the top of the depth chart.

An undrafted free agent who signed with the Steelers in 2004 after a disheartening career at North Carolina, where he started only five games in four seasons and didn't even get on the field for Senior Day in 2003, Parker has provided the Steelers a dimension in the running game the franchise hasn't possessed for a long time: a take-it-to-the-house threat.

Proceed through the roll call of backs who have led the Steelers in rushing every season since the early '70s -- Franco Harris, Frank Pollard, Earnest Jackson, Merril Hoge, Tim Worley, Barry Foster, Leroy Thompson, Erric Pegram, Bettis and Amos Zereoue -- and they all pretty much fit the same power-runner mien. In the speedy Parker, however, Pittsburgh has a back who broke the team's tailback mold.

"The first thing you saw with him," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher, "was the speed. But he was raw. I think being around Jerome, watching how to use blockers and to set up the blocks, helped him a lot. He's a lot more patient runner now. He's stronger now [at 209 pounds] than he was. He'll take the ball inside now and jam it up in there."

Steelers coordinator Ken Whisenhunt consistently preaches about the values of fitting a square peg in a square hole in your overall offensive design. And, to be sure, there were some skeptics who questioned whether Parker was physical enough for the model Pittsburgh prefers for its featured runner. But square hole or round hole, everyone agrees that if Parker breaks cleanly through any hole and gets loose in the secondary, he is going to run a long way.

And that home-run dimension, while anathema to the Steelers' historically bludgeoning style, is certainly compelling.

"He's different than any back we've had here," said Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak, who has been with the organization as a player or an assistant coach for 44 years. "He's a guy who can turn the game around just like that. To have gotten a player like him as an undrafted guy, a player with his kinds of skills, it's incredible, really."

Credit the discovery of Parker to Danny Rooney, the son of Steelers owner Dan Rooney. The nine-year veteran scout prefers the personnel evaluation end of the business more than the administrative side of things. An area scout, the younger Rooney lives in Gastonia, N.C., and his wife, Allison, is a physician in nearby Clinton. He also coached high school football in North Carolina, so he saw a lot of games in the area. Rooney remembered seeing Parker register huge numbers at Clinton High School, where he led his team to the state Class AA title as a junior and into the quarterfinals as a senior.

Parker had another, less flattering nickname in those days: "The Clinton Bypass," a snide handle hung on him by detractors who felt he too often avoided contact between the tackles and preferred to bounce every run to the outside. Recruited by North Carolina, he spent most of his college career wasting away on the bench. Parker ran for just 1,172 yards in Chapel Hill.

On Senior Day, against Duke, he didn't play. His mother, Lorraine Parker, gently suggested when she met him in the tunnel beneath the stands at Kenan Stadium that it might be time to consider a career other than athletics.

Fortunately, for Parker and his football career, Danny Rooney had a good memory. While at North Carolina to audition some other players, he took the time to work out Parker, and the youngster was off the charts in most of the drills. When he went undrafted in 2004, Pittsburgh signed Parker to a two-year contract at league minimum base salaries of $230,000 for 2004 and $305,000 for 2005, along with a modest signing bonus.

Two years later, the return on the investment is beyond exponential.

Said Bob Lewis, Parker's coach at Clinton High: "He's made a lot of people at [North Carolina], folks who will be watching the Super Bowl on Sunday, look bad. If you can play the way he's played in the NFL, why couldn't he have done that at Carolina, huh? But I guess it doesn't much matter now, [because] things worked out for him."

Better for Parker, in fact, than for the backs who played ahead of him in the Tar Heels' lineup. Fact: One of the players who started ahead of Parker in college, Chad Scott, was signed by the Steelers last summer when they had a spate of injuries at the tailback spot. Scott lasted less than a week in camp before he was released.

"In a lot of different things in life, it's about being at the right place at the right time, and someone giving you a chance," Parker said. "I know how fortunate I am, believe me, and I'm very grateful for every opportunity. There were definitely some bad, hurtful times, and a lot of times it seemed the door was closing right in my face. But it's worked out for the best. Better than a lot of the [doubters] thought that it would."

Parker, 25, played in eight games as a rookie and opened some eyes by rushing for 102 of his 186 yards in 2004 in the season finale at Buffalo. It was a game in which Pittsburgh, having secured home-field advantage through the playoffs, rested many regulars. In camp last summer, Staley was coming off surgery to repair knee cartilage and Bettis was nursing a severe calf injury. Thrust into the lineup, Parker ran for 161 yards against Tennessee in the opener, followed that up with a 111-yard performance at Houston the next week, and took over the position full-time.

Starting in all but one game, Parker finished with 1,202 yards and four touchdowns on 255 carries. He also caught 18 passes for 218 yards and one score. He registered five games of 100 yards, had nine runs of 20 yards or more, and four for 37 yards or longer. Counting receptions, Parker recorded five plays from scrimmage of 40 yards or more -- and his 80-yard touchdown run at Cleveland was a personal highlight reel, one on which he displayed burst, vision, cut-back ability, decisiveness and, in the vernacular, long speed (perhaps the rarest of attributes for an NFL runner).

"The thing about having Willie is that, if we just get people blocked up front, he can run a long, long way," said Hines Ward, arguably the NFL's best blocking wide receiver. "He forces defenses to play us a little bit differently than in the past. Defenses know now that, if they miss a gap and Willie gets into the open, it's all over."

Indeed, some defenses are a bit more reluctant to stack eight in the box against Pittsburgh now, but a few blitzed more on early downs to take advantage of Parker's perceived lack of polish in pass protection. Some defenses feel, too, that Parker will put the ball on the ground, even though he did not lose a fumble during the season. As for the Steelers, they probably run more off-tackle stretch plays than in the past, and the linemen tend to hold blocks just a tick longer.

But it doesn't take much more than a crease to spring Parker, whose 4.7-yard average per carry was fifth best in 2005 among the NFL's 16 players who rushed for 1,000 yards. So maybe the "Fast Willie" nickname really does fit after all, huh?

"I hope so," Parker said. "I hope, after [Super Bowl XL], everybody is taking about Fast Willie. I hope I play well enough so that everyone knows who that is."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.