During a podcast appearance earlier this week, Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach Mike Tomlin told listeners that he expected second-year halfback Najee Harris to be a “bell cow” for the team this season.
I found this comment strange given that Harris was already a bell cow last year. Harris was second in the NFL in rushing attempts last season, trailing only Jonathan Taylor. Harris carried the ball 307 times during his rookie campaign, the 16th-most carries for a rookie ever. He averaged 3.9 yards per attempt. Since 2010, only one other time has a halfback age-23 or younger rushed more than 300 times in a single season while averaging fewer than four yards a carry — 2010 Rashard Mendenhall.
You’d think the Steelers would’ve learned not to push their young running backs so hard after Mendenhall. The 2008 first-round pick retired early at 26. While Mendenhall never explicitly said that injuries played a factor in his decision, claiming that he was just done with football and wanted to “travel the world and write,” he did also state that he no longer wanted to put his body at risk for the sake of entertainment.
Mendenhall was riddled with injuries throughout his career. Most notably, he suffered a shoulder injury in 2008, followed by a torn ACL in 2011, and a bad case of turf toe in his final season with Arizona, 2013. We really started seeing Mendenhall’s downfall after that ACL tear, at age-24, one year after Mendenhall carried the ball 300-plus times. Do you see where I’m going with this?
The same can sort of be said for Le’Veon Bell, as well. Bell was the belle of the ball among NFL running backs early in his career, but guess what? After carrying the ball 290 times in 2014, he missed 10 games in 2015 due to injury. After carrying the ball more than 300 times in 2017, he didn’t like his usage and sat out all of 2018. Then, we started seeing a decline in production. The Steelers are about to do the same thing to Harris: Run him into the ground. That’ll be the third franchise halfback in less than two decades that has fallen victim to the Steelers’ massive dependence on franchise backs.
And here’s the thing. I’d be willing to let that slide if there was any indication that the Steelers run blocking would be much more efficient in 2022, but that’s not the case. The team spent an astonishing ZERO draft picks to shore up an offensive line that ranked 28th in adjusted line yards for run blocking in 2021.
In all fairness though, guard Kevin Dotson did miss half the season last year, the team acquired center Mason Cole (great run blocker, awful pass blocker) and guard James Daniels in the offseason, and perhaps left tackle Dan Moore Jr. can improve upon his underwhelming rookie season, but that’s a lot of ‘ifs’, ‘and’s, and fingers being crossed hoping that everything comes together. I’m not buying it. Maybe the quarterback play will improve, thus taking the weight of shouldering the offense off Harris, but Mitch Trubisky isn’t an upgrade, and as far as we can tell rookie Kenny Pickett’s timeline for becoming the team’s starting quarterback is still undetermined.
Basically, Harris will likely be working with a similarly incompetent offensive line unit and quarterback (at least for now) while taking on an even heavier workload than he was given last year and likely won’t even be that efficient. Come on!
There’s a reason so many NFL teams are opting for committee approaches to their backfields nowadays. Putting all your eggs in one half-basket (buh dum tss) not only limits their longevity in the NFL, but also forces you to pay them much more money when their contract expires. Even someone as durable as Derrick Henry didn’t reach 200 carries until his third season. He was given time to adjust to the NFL and worked in a committee for a few years before becoming the King. While Henry did suffer a serious injury last year, he was one of the most durable backs in the league prior to 2021, even at 27 years old. Look what wonders limiting Henry’s workload early in his career did for the Titans’ franchise. Harris doesn’t have Henry’s size though, and that only makes limiting his workload early in his career all the more important.
Harris is a tremendous talent with a lot of potential. If played right, Harris could have a long, prosperous NFL career that fans ooh and awe over for a decade. Don’t deprive us of that Pittsburgh. Don’t you put that evil on him!