Per everyone, Rashard Mendenhall was suspended one game by Mike Tomlin for "conduct detrimental to the team." Multiple sources say Mendenhall did not report to the Steelers' game against the San Diego Chargers on Sunday even though he was going to be inactive anyway.
This isn't something Mike Tomlin takes lightly. Mendenhall's apparent refusal to report and subsequent suspension speaks to a growing rift between player and coach. It's technically speculation, but you don't have to be a fortune teller to realize that Tomlin and Mendenhall don't quite get along. Never has it been more evident than these past two weeks, in which the coach elected not to play the former 1st-round draft pick in favor of undrafted Isaac Redman and late-round picks Chris Rainey and Jonathan Dwyer. Another late pick, Baron Batch, will replace Mendenhall during his suspension.
Clearly, draft pedigree isn't a factor in who Tomlin chooses to play, nor should it be. Players get on the field when they earn the playing time. Mendenhall has not earned playing time. He has proven a few notable things over the course of his career, none of them good:
- He is indecisive more often than not when he's carrying the ball.
- That leads him to dance around behind the line of scrimmage, which typically ends up as a negative play.
- He carries the ball as far away from his body as possible, which makes it too easy to fumble.
- His health is in question.
Of course, it's easy to pile on about everything wrong with Mendenhall's style. He isn't a terrible football player. He's put up over 3400 yards and scored 31 touchdowns as a Steeler. Those are not insignificant numbers and we shouldn't forget that he's been a productive starting running back for most of his career. But right now, it looks like it's either him or Mike Tomlin. And Mike Tomlin isn't going anywhere.
So all signs point to the free-agent-to-be Mendenhall parting ways with the organization this spring. That leaves a giant hole in the RB corps, and it's a hole that will need to be filled. It's nice to have Jonathan Dwyer plunge through a pile on 4th & 1, and Isaac Redman has shown he can fill the same role, though perhaps without the same ferocity. Chris Rainey is the undersized speedy running back who figures to work into the passing game eventually (why he hasn't so far is a bit of a mystery but that's a topic for another day) and Baron Batch is supposedly the typical third-down-back type player.
So who do you put in on 2nd & 8? Dwyer and Redman can be reliable enough for 2 or 3 yards at a time, but do you trust them to get a lot more than that with any regularity? Do you put in a smaller back and let him run between the tackles? There's a middle ground there, and while a significant portion of Steeler fans are still waist-deep in a love affair with Jerome Bettis, you need a reliable back who has the speed to break free and the size to survive running up the middle most of the season.
Rashard Mendenhall is that kind of running back. Unfortunately, that individual running back is likely on his way out of Pittsburgh. I would imagine the Steelers will invest in a new running back in the 3rd or 4th round of the draft, assuming there's any value at the position around then. Might as well, considering those late-round running backs have served the Steelers better than the high-profile first-rounder this season.