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DeAngelo Williams, Like Marcus Allen, Is an Underappreciated Superstar

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterSeptember 29, 2016

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 18:  DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates his touchdown reception in the fourth quarter during the game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Heinz Field on September 18, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images)
Joe Sargent/Getty Images

J.J. Watt is injured. Adrian Peterson is injured. Tom Brady is still in Sunday detention. Cam Newton is noticeably gimpy. Russell Wilson may be playing with a brace on his knee.

The timing couldn't be better for Le'Veon Bell to make his return from suspension. The Steelers ceded control of the state of Wentzylvania to Carson Wentz and the Eagles last week, so they need reinforcements. And the rest of us need a little extra star wattage in these Watt-less times. 

Before we unroll the red carpet to its full length for Bell, let's take a moment to recognize the man exiting the limelight in Pittsburgh: the ageless, perpetually underappreciated DeAngelo Williams.

There's a lot of Marcus Allen in Williams. The rushing style. The "style" style. The durability, versatility and determination. The willingness to do anything for the team. And the strange tendency to end up playing second fiddle, only to rise to the occasion the moment he’s needed, then return to playing second fiddle.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - AUGUST 26:  DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Le'Veon Bell #26 talk  before a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on August 26, 2016 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images)
Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Williams returns to the bench with Bell's return. There has been talk of roles for both players, or even a two-headed backfield, but offensive coordinator Todd Haley isn't a running-back-by-committee guy. In the five games when Bell was fully available last year, Williams rushed a total of 13 times and caught one pass. His "role" will be to stay rested and ready for Bell’s next absence.

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Heading to the bench to quietly wait for the next emergency is a signature Marcus Allen move. No great running back in history spent more time standing on the sideline with his helmet under his arm.

Younger fans who only know the broad strokes of Allen's careerHall of Famer, Heisman winner, Raiders great, played forever, did this in the Super Bowlmay be shocked to learn that Allen only rushed for over 1,000 yards three times in his career. He was a committee back by age 26. First, he shared carries with Bo Jackson, which is understandable. Then, he spent several seasons getting benched behind over-the-hill acquisitions like Roger Craig and Eric Dickerson for reasons that went to the grave with Al Davis.

Allen moved on to Kansas City at age 33. The Chiefs first made him an often-used backup to former first-round pick Harvey Williams. Injuries and attitude problems swallowed Williams' career. The Chiefs then drafted Greg Hill in the first round. Hill was younger and quicker than Allen. But Allen was better at football. In 1997, Hill started 16 games, rushed for 550 yards and scored zero touchdowns. The 37-year-old Allen came off the bench to rush for 505 yards and score 11 touchdowns.

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 25:  Running back Marcus Allen #32 of the Kansas City Chiefs eludes linebacker Henry Rolling #59 of the Los Angeles Rams at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri on Septemtber 25, 1994. The Rams defeated the Chiefs 16-0. (
Joseph Patronite/Getty Images

Allen never complained about his bench role in five seasons with the Chiefs. Marty Schottenheimer said it best in 1993, when explaining why Williams remained the nominal starter while Allen was getting most of the meaningful carries. "Marcus Allen is the kind of player who understands what it takes," Schottenheimer told reporters, according to the Wichita Eagle. "His role is to do the things that are going to help us win and at the same time make his contribution with some of the younger players."

In other words, the late-career Allen wasn’t just a goal-line back, third-down back and critical-situation back. He was also the designated No Ego Back. Had he not retired in 1997, he might have hung around long enough to come off the bench to rescue Trent Richardson.

Williams has quietly followed a similar career path. His 2008 season with the Panthers was a lot like Allen’s 1985 masterpiece: 1,515 yards at 5.5 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns for Williams; 1,759 yards at 4.6 yards per carry and 11 touchdowns for Allen. Like Allen, Williams shared the backfield, and Jonathan Stewart siphoned off lots of carries. Williams battled some injuries, as Allen did. The Panthers lost their organizational way for a while, just as those old Raiders often did.

CHARLOTTE, NC - DECEMBER 08:  DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Carolina Panthers runs with the ball during their game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Bank of America Stadium on December 8, 2008 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Williams signed a $43 million cap-buster of a contract in 2011, just as he began settling into a string of 800-yard seasons. Williams was still very good, and the Panthers became relevant again, but his salary and production just didn't match. Things never got ugly the way they did between Allen and the Raiders —presidential politics still haven’t gotten as ugly as things did between Allen and the Raiders—but both sides had to move on.

The Steelers signed Williams last March to cover Bell’s first suspension. Superficially, it was a bad "Moneyball" move; 32-year old running backs are typically as valuable as 10-year-old laptops. But signing Williams was a free-agency masterstroke. For $4 million over two years—a fraction of the bonus Williams received in that 2011 albatross—Williams has now covered three extended Bell absences, providing five 100-yard games in 13 starts, with 54 receptions and 14 touchdowns.

Williams has also provided solid pass protection, good decision-making and all the other things that come with having to touch up the gray in your whiskers. Like Allen, he has become a leader and the ultimate role model: the veteran with 8,000 rushing yards who retreats to a supporting role without a peep. "He came here with one agenda, and that was to win a world championship," Mike Tomlin told reporters about Williams last week.

Players like Allen and Williams are rare. Pull up a list of likely free-agent running backs for 2017 and look for someone your team could grab next year, use as a 25-carry workhorse for a few weeks, then replant on the bench without incident or controversy. Chris Johnson could possibly do it now that he has shed the CJ2K baggage, but Johnson is also a pretty unique dude. Arian Foster tried it for the Dolphins this year and got hurt after two games. That’s about it.

The only 2017 free agent who really looks anything like DeAngelo Williams is DeAngelo Williams. Which means he will keep playing, perhaps for the Steelers, possibly until he is 37 years old, the way Allen did.

It’s easy to love Williams for his perseverance, his talent, his defiance of the league's loony Thou Must Only Acknowledge Breast Cancer Awareness Month the Way We Order Thou To directives, his barbs with fantasy gamers, his hair and even his Nickelback ringtone.

PITTSBURGH, PA - SEPTEMBER 18: Running back DeAngelo Williams #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the football as he is pursued by cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick #27 of the Cincinnati Bengals during a game at Heinz Field on September 18, 2016 in Pittsbur
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

That said, Williams is unlikely to join Allen in the Hall of Fame. And why salute him now, when he is about to once again disappear from the highlight reels and fantasy lineups? It’s simple:

  • Without Watt, the Texans are an overpriced also-ran without an identity.
  • Without Peterson, the Vikings can only get as far as sacks, Stefon Diggs and punt returns can take them.
  • Without Brady, the Patriots are duct-taping together quarterbacks you never heard of. Yes, they’re still crushing it, but no one who has watched five seconds of Patriots football has forgotten Brady's absence.
  • The Panthers cannot move the ball with Newton nearly immobilized. The Seahawks cannot score against a good opponent with a stationary Wilson.

But without Bell, the Steelers have been just fine for much of the last two seasons. And they’ll be just fine if they lose Bell again. Williams is a superstar backup in a league running out of superstars.

When asked in 1996 how he hoped to be remembered, Allen said: "Hopefully, as one of the better all-around backs that has ever played the game. One that took a lot of pride and gave more than 100 percent.''

Allen is remembered for much more than that. So let's remember Williams that way instead. At least until the next time he climbs off the bench and saves the day.

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