By Mark Sandritter
Cold, Hard Football Facts resident bully-buster
The pigskin pedigrees of Franco Harris and Willie Parker could not be more different.
Harris was a No. 1 draft pick out of Penn State who became the NFL's 1972 Rookie of the Year, the all-time leading rusher in Steelers history, a four-time Super Bowl champ, Super Bowl MVP and a Hall of Famer. He was named by The Sporting News one of the Top 100 players in the history of the NFL.
Parker was an undrafted free agent who carried the ball just 48 times as a college senior and played just three games as an NFL rookie.
But since then, from his humble origins, Fast Willie has cut a dashing figure across the fields of the NFL, one that looks remarkably similar to that of a Pittsburgh legend so popular he had his own army
Fast Willie turned into a remarkably productive back in his sophomore season, and a Pro Bowl ballcarrier in his third. He has established himself as a top NFL running back and, if the first three games of his fourth season are any indication, the best may still be to come.
We broke out our trusty statistical tape measure to size up Harris, the legend, and Parker, the potential legend-in-training, and found, to our shock, that Fast Willie compares favorably to Franco in many ways, at similar points in their careers.
We undertook two exercises here. The first Tale o' the Tape is a look at the overall careers of Fast Willie and Franco. And then, to provide more of an apples to apples comparison, we looked at the two after three seasons in the league.
This is pretty compelling stuff.
FAST WILLIE vs. FRANCO (career comparison)
Fast Willie
North Carolina
Penn State
13th overall
Years in NFL
Fan Club
Willie's Mom
Most famous play
Record 75-yard SB run
Immaculate Reception
Career best rush yards
1,494 (2006)
1,246 (1975)
Fast Willie
Career best YPA
(min. 100 attempts)
4.7 (2005)
5.6 (1972)
Career best receptions
31 (2006)
37 (1981)
Career best rec. yards
222 (2006)
291 (1979)
Career best TDs
16 (2006)
14 (1976)
Fast Willie
Super Bowl rings
Super Bowl MVPs
Pro Bowls
O.K., so it's impossible to compare the career accomplishments of the great Hall of Famer and his 13 years in the NFL to those of Fast Willie, who has just 42 NFL games under his belt. Franco wins out in virtually every category.
But let's look at the two performers after their first three years in the NFL. When we do, the substantial similarities in productivity between the two players starts to take a pretty clear shape.
FAST WILLIE vs. FRANCO (first three seasons)
Fast Willie
Rushing yards
Fast Willie
1,000-yard seasons
Best season
1,494 yards (16 games)
1,055 yards (14 games)
Fast Willie
Rush YPG
73.9 YPG (39 games)
72.6 YPG (38 games)
Fast Willie
Rush YPA
Receiving yards
Fast Willie
Fast Willie
Team record
34-14 (.708)
31-10-1 (.750)
Super Bowl victories
Pro Bowl selections
Playoff rush yards
Playoff YPA
Fast Willie
Playoff TDs
Fast Willie not only compares, he's on pace to surpass Franco
Franco came out of Penn State's mighty football program as a first-round pick. He proceeded to rush for 1,000 yards as a rookie and made the Pro Bowl in each of his first nine seasons.
As a senior at mid-tier North Carolina, Fast Willie ran for just 181 yards on 48 carries. In his first start as a member of Steelers, Parker ripped off 161 yards on 22 carries.
Since then, Fast Willie has continued to improve and make that lack of college productivity seem like a distant memory of a another player's career. By his third season (2006), Parker was among the league leaders with 1,494 rushing yards and 16 total touchdowns.
Franco's and Fast Willie's totals after three seasons are remarkably similar in every key area, rushing yards,YPA and TDs. But Parker already has better single-season totals, better yards-per-game totals, and generally appears to be on pace to improve upon those numbers this season.
Here in 2007, Parker leads the NFL with 368 rushing yards through three games. If it continues, Fast Willie will do something Franco never did: win an NFL rushing title.
Parker's combination of explosive speed and surprising durability for a smaller back give him the potential to continually produce at an elite level.
In Parker's first two seasons with consistent playing time he averaged 1,350 yards. If he is able to maintain these numbers he would surpass Harris's rushing total in six more seasons. Although it's a lofty goal, it would put Parker at 32 years old, just past the dreaded 30 year mark for running backs. In comparison, Harris played 13 NFL seasons, retiring at the age of 35.
Franco was a man for his time
While Fast Willie has an outside shot of racing past Harris for the Steelers all-time rushing mark, Harris's streak of nine straight Pro Bowl appearances is safe.
Harris made the Pro Bowl in 1973 despite rushing for a modest 698 yards and three touchdowns.
Today, with the modern AFC stable full of talented running backs such as LaDainian Tomlinson, Larry Johnson, Laurence Maroney, Joseph Addai, Marshawn Lynch, Travis Henry and Ronnie Brown, the competition for a Pro Bowl spot is intense. For proof just ask the reigning NFL MVP Tomlinson, who failed to make the Pro Bowl in 2001 and 2003 despite averaging 1,440 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing to go along with 80 receptions for 550 yards and two touchdowns.
You also have to consider Franco's production in the context of his time. Harris joined the NFL at the height of the Dead Ball Era, a period when the most stifling defenses in league history ruled the game. Fast Willie plays in an NFL marked by historic offensive productivity in every aspect of the game, passing, rushing, scoring. You name it.
Franco's nine-straight Pro Bowl selections help tell us where he ranked among the league's elite backs of his time, even if the raw numbers on the stat sheet, as was the case in 1973, were not always spectacular.
Consistency will be the key
If nothing else, Harris was consistent. In his 12 seasons with Pittsburgh he gained at least 1,000 yards eight times.
The key for Parker's long-term success will be his ability to stay healthy and display the same consistency and durability that made Harris a Hall of Famer.
Harris played fewer than 12 games just twice in his career and never carried the ball more than 310 times in any given season. In comparison, Parker carried the ball 337 times last year and is on pace for almost 400 attempts this season.
Harris's ability to remain a productive runner well into his 30s is impressive in a sport where a player can go from MVP Superman one year to injured non-factor the next (see: Alexander, Shaun).
Fast Willie will most likely need at least eight healthy seasons if he wants to approach Harris's career numbers. And at 5-10, 209 pounds durability may become an issue later in his career.
Bottom Line
Franco and Fast Willie look remarkably similar after three season in the NFL and Parker is on pace to equal or better the totals of the Hall of Fame legend.
Parker is the running-back version of the iPod. He is flashy, productive and has the ability to do things his predecessors couldn't. While it's impossible to know how productive Parker will be eight years from now, it's safe to say as an undrafted free agent he is one of the biggest steals in recent memory. Going from a part-time player in college to a Pro Bowl player in the NFL is accomplishment enough, but to be on a pace similar to that of a Hall of Fame icon is extraordinary.
But it's a long way from a sure thing. Harris was rarely spectacular, but his consistency and rare ability to stay healthy and productive for so long established his legacy as one of the greatest running backs of all-time.
And remember, Harris was a consummate postseason performer, as evidenced by his caught-out-of-the-air Immaculate Reception in the 1972 playoffs, his 1,556 postseason rushing yards and by his then-record 158 yards rushing in Super Bowl IX, for which he earned his Super Bowl MVP award. He was the top offensive workhorse on a dynasty that won four Super Bowls.
Fast Willie might surpass all of his numbers, but it will be hard to supplant the legend of the four-time champion who inspired his own army.