Rashard Mendenhall is a confusing man. Or, more specifically, his right knee is quite befuddling.

When he tore his ACL during the Steelers’ final regular-season game of 2011, it was widely assumed that he’ll miss at least the first six games of the 2012 season, and possibly the entire season. That diagnosis isn’t remotely surprising, since it typically takes a year to fully recover from an ACL injury.

But recently he’s been sprinkled with a pack of pixie dust, which may or may not be from the same batch that makes Adriana Lima appear in dreams. During the first few days of the Steelers offseason training program he’s been seen running without favoring the injury. Sure, it’s just running, and Mendenhall wasn’t a full participant in any drills. But running is kind of important for running backs, and if we’re still operating under the assumption that he’d need a full year of recovery, then running without hesitation just five months after the injury is rather impressive.

Mendenhall said he “doesn’t see that happening at all” when the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review asked him about potentially missing a full season. Then he was asked to be even more optimistic, and he delivered:

Mendenhall said he will play this season, and the Steelers running back didn’t rule out doing so in the
Sept. 9 season opener in Denver.

“There’s always the possibility,” Mendenhall said Wednesday. “I’ll be back at some point. It’s just a matter of what point that is.”

So now he’s flirting with the idea of playing and taking full contact to an injury that, again, needs a full year to heal, but Mendenhall is confident with nine months.

Forgive us for limiting our optimism a bit, because the RB graveyard has many residents whose careers weren’t the same following ACL injuries. The same cautious optimism applies to Adrian Peterson despite the glowing reports emerging from Minnesota about his injury. We can’t make a proper and complete judgment until there’s a game situation, and there won’t be one until at least August during the preseason.

But with that disclaimer out of the way, you’re allowed to get at least a little giddy, Steelers fans. While Isaac Redman has shown promise during his limited time, there’s still a lack of reliable depth in Pittsburgh’s backfield beyond Mendenhall. Jonathan Dwyer had a 107-yard outburst during Week 5 last year against Tennessee on just 11 carries, but then he had only 16 yards the rest of the year and suffered a foot injury that landed him on the injured reserve.

The Steelers drafted Chris Rainey in the fifth round last month for some added youth and depth, but he’s clearly still raw. Beyond Redman and Mendenhall, no running back on Pittsburgh’s roster has more than 25 career carries.

Mendenhall is in the final year of his contract, but it’s a year that the Steelers desperately need him to be healthy while Dwyer and Redman continue to develop.

And now you want to know the rest of the story…

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