Whetstone: A thankless job

Whetstone: A thankless job

It's not a glamorous role; he doesn't get the glory, the fans don't chant his name as he exits the tunnel, and he'll never make big, big money. He only touches the ball four or five times a game, and comes up short more often than not.

But Steelers third-down back Verron Haynes should be proud of the championship ring that is soon to adorn his finger, and the role that he filled on the team with which he earned it.

Haynes sees the field in less-than-enviable situations, at least when it comes to attaining glory and recognition. He gets to sacrifice his body by hurtling downfield on kick coverage, for one thing. There's a lot more downside to blowing kick coverage responsibility than there is upside to performing it well, from a fan-relations perspective. As a runner, the bulk of his carries in 2005 came late in games while protecting a lead. In fact, 52 of his 80 carries (including the playoffs) came in the fourth quarter with the Steelers leading by more than one score.

Against any team not coached by Andy Reid, an opposing defense in that situation can be pretty confident selling out against the run. Against the Steelers under Bill Cowher, it becomes a certainty on the level of death and taxes. And yet, against defenses with nothing to do but wait for the handoff and tackle the ball carrier, Haynes ground out 5.3 yards per carry. Jerome Bettis got most of the credit for salting away games late, and he certainly earned that reputation over the years, but Haynes has been a solid closer in his own right.

Of course, preserving leads and saving the legs of the other backs with garbage-time carries was a less important function as a third-down back than, you know, actually playing on third downs. Much of the time, Haynes' function in that role involved blitz pickup ... the sacrificing of his own body in preservation of someone else's. And, of course, he saw 34 touches of the football on third down, in the form of 26 runs and 8 catches (on 14 throws). In those 40 plays, he converted 12 first downs. That doesn't sound like a good conversion rate, but consider that those 40 plays averaged a little over 8 yards to go; it sheds a different light on those numbers. Moreover, his eight third-down catches, his eight predictable screens, draws, and dump-offs, resulted in six first downs despite those plays averaging 9.6 yards to go.

That, really, is the plight of all third-down backs. They see the ball most often in situations with odds slanted heavily toward failure. How often is a running back supposed to convert third and eight? But fans project frustration with the failure of the third-down play (which, ultimately, is the failure of the series, not just the play) onto the player who is asked to make a small miracle happen and—not surprisingly—frequently comes up short.

Haynes is a fine example of a player who carves out his own productive niche despite his shortcomings. While he averaged 5.3 yards per carry salting away games last season, he put up a paltry 2.1 yards per carry otherwise. Not surprisingly, no teams showed interest in him as a feature back in free agency this off-season. That niche with the Steelers remained, though, and he'll now have an opportunity to contribute to another championship run. It took contributions from a lot more than the starting 22 players to win Super Bowl XL, and the pursuit of XLI will require just as many.

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