Labriola On

Labriola on Big Al learning from Fast Willie

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • He was the undisputed "Camp Phenom, 2004 Edition," and in retrospect he deserves to be first-team All-Time Camp Phenom. In about eight weeks from now, the Steelers will be living and working in Latrobe, Pa., where they'll be starting their 51st complete training camp on the Saint Vincent College campus, and during their half-century of summering in the beautiful Laurel Highlands there have been few out-of-nowhere stories better than the one authored 13 years ago by Willie Parker.
  • The Summer of 2004 also marked the professional debut of Ben Roethlisberger, the first-round pick who came to be recognized as the Steelers' quarterback of the future before he even picked up a football simply by being selected 11th overall in the first round. The presence of a rookie quarterback, and the presence of a rookie quarterback drafted on the first round naturally attracted the bulk of the attention, but as the summer wore on fans and media started noticing the guy wearing No. 39.
  • The first thing you noticed was the speed. Even in non-contact drills, the guy wearing No. 39 displayed a burst that caught your attention and then immediately directed you to the numerical roster you carry with you everywhere you go during those early days of every training camp. Who is that No. 39? Willie Parker. Where did he play college football? North Carolina.
  • That's how it started, but it didn't end with the speed. Tough running between the tackles, instead of always trying to bounce outside and get around the corner. Stepping up to pick up a blitzer in pass protection. And you just kept coming back to the speed.
  • Then you learned that Willie Parker's career totals at North Carolina: 285 carries for 1,172 yards (4.1 average) and eight touchdowns. Career totals, and the team was 2-10 during his senior season? He only got 48 carries for 181 yards for a 2-10 team, and he's looking like a guy who's going to make an NFL roster at a position that contained veterans named Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley. It made no sense.
  • But anyway, it soon became a reality that Willie Parker, a nobody from nowhere when training camp opened, was going to make the Steelers' roster to start the 2004 season. He was inactive for most of the first half of that season, but then in a meaningless regular season finale, Parker rushed for 102 yards on 19 carries in a victory over Buffalo that sent the Steelers into the 2004 playoffs with a 15-1 record.

The Steelers participate in day 6 of the 2017 Organized Team Activities at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

  • By the time training camp ended the following summer, in 2005, Parker was a starter, partly because Staley was injured and Bettis was 33 years old, but also partly because 4.3 speed can neither be taught nor denied. Parker finished the 2005 regular season with 1,202 yards on 255 carries (4.7 average) and four touchdowns, and then he capped the postseason with a Super Bowl record 75-yard touchdown run to help bring a fifth Lombardi Trophy to Pittsburgh.
  • As an undrafted rookie in 2004, Parker had signed a two-year contract to join the Steelers and come to training camp and try his luck at an NFL career, but as the confetti rained down on the Steelers inside Ford Field following Super Bowl XL, there was no doubt he belonged. And with Bettis having retired, there also was no doubt he was the Steelers' best running back.
  • According to the rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Parker was nothing more than an exclusive rights free agent as the 2006 offseason began, and that status meant he had no ability to shop his services to another team nor did the Steelers have to offer him anything more than the third-year veteran minimum salary for the upcoming season. Another reality of Parker's situation was that after 2006, he only would be a restricted free agent entering the 2007 offseason.
  • Even though the Steelers had the upper hand with Parker, on Aug. 31, 2006, the team signed him to a four-year, $13.6 million contract that included a $3.75 million signing bonus. Parker ended up earning every nickel of that $13.6 million before leaving the Steelers following the 2009 season and signing with the Washington Redskins as an unrestricted free agent.
  • This situation should be educational for Alejandro Villanueva and his agent, because theirs is a situation remarkably similar to the one in which Parker found himself after the 2005 season.
  • Like Parker in early 2006, Villanueva is an exclusive rights free agent in 2017 and would qualify only for restricted free agency in 2018.
  • Like Parker, Villanueva entered the NFL as a long-shot, a guy without a real position who played his college football at West Point. Parker first impressed Steelers scout Dan Rooney Jr. with his speed, while Villanueva impressed Mike Tomlin with how he stood head and shoulders taller than all of his Philadelphia teammates before a Steelers preseason game vs. the Eagles.
  • Villanueva was a defensive lineman when he was cut by the Eagles, and the Steelers thought he had some of the requisite characteristics of an offensive tackle and claimed him off waivers to try him at a different position. Both Parker and Villanueva worked their way onto the roster, and both were able to get from the bottom of the depth chart into the starting lineup by taking advantage of injuries to players ahead of them.
  • With just two weeks remaining in this offseason program, Villanueva is without a contract because both sides are interested in a longer-term arrangement, but the reality is nothing has gotten done.
  • There still is time, and Villanueva has shown his commitment to the Steelers by signing a participation agreement so he can participate in OTAs and minicamp. That's a nice gesture on the player's part, just as the Steelers have made a nice gesture by showing a willingness to pay Villanueva more than he possibly could earn over the next couple of years under the terms of the current CBA.
  • Maybe Villanueva's agent believes the Steelers should be offering more for the guy who's their starting left tackle, just as it's possible Parker's agent believed his client should be getting more than an average of $3.4 million per year for the guy who was their starting running back and someone who had just helped them win a Super Bowl with a 75-yard touchdown in a game that ended, 21-10.
  • Under different circumstances, that could've been correct. But these are a couple of players who entered the NFL from the bottom and found themselves limited early in their careers by the rules of the labor agreement. Parker was a running back whose body was sure to be exposed to a lot of wear-and-tear before getting a shot at the open market, and Villanueva is a still-developing left tackle who will be 30-going-on-31 when he hits unrestricted free agency in March 2019 and is able to discover what his market value might be.
  • Willie Parker used the bird-in-a-hand approach and ended up earning slightly more than $14 million over six seasons in the NFL, and he got to do all of that with one team. He left the NFL with his name on two Lombardi trophies, he is a treasured member of the Steelers' recent past, and he still enjoys all the rights and privileges that come with that status.
  • There is a lesson somewhere in there for Alejandro Villanueva.
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