Steelers running back DeAngelo Williams is an 11-year NFL vet, the oldest running back in the NFL and one of only five active backs with 8,000 career rushing yards. In 2015, filling in for injured star Le’Veon Bell, Williams rushed for 907 yards and 11 touchdowns—the third-best season for a 32-year old back in league history. And through the first two games of ’16, again filling in for Bell, Williams had rushed for 237 yards, the highest total to start a season for a running back 33 years or older. Williams spoke exclusively with Sports Illustrated about how he doesn’t believe in the word ‘backup’, what comes next for him now that Bell is returning from suspension, and why he believes this is his year to finally win that elusive Super Bowl.
Ben Baskin: When you first get the news that Le’Veon Bell was suspended for the first four games of the season [later reduced to three games], and you realize that you are again going to have switch from the backup running back to the starter, how does your mindset change?
DeAngelo Willams: There is no mindset change. I go in and work my ass off to be productive always. I was working just like I would be if I was the starting tailback, so nothing changed for me. When my number is called, nobody cares if I am a starter or not. They just care if I make plays or if I’m productive. The last 11 years, I have attacked the off-season the exact same way, whether I was the starter or the backup. You have to understand that in this league, we are all one play removed from being the starter or from being the backup, in any game.
BB: With the rash of injuries around the NFL recently, are there really any true backups anymore?
DW: As a football team, we don’t have any backups. We don’t consider anybody a backup. But the only way that society can understand [sports] is to label things ... So that’s where that word ‘backup’ was formulated, and that’s just what we use. But again, whether you make a play or you don’t make a play, they won’t ever say, “Oh, he wasn’t supposed to make that play anyway because he was the backup.” In the NFL, if you make the play or you don’t make the play, you’re just a football player who did or didn’t make the play. You don’t get more yards or less yards based on what you’re labeled as by society.
BB: It seems you are pretty content with your current role on this team. You have been one of the best rushers in the league this season, yet are happily and openly deferring to Le’Veon when he returns. Is there anything you can point to over your career that has gotten you to this point?
DW: I’ve shared carries my entire career. I had the opportunity to play with one of the better backs in the league in Jonathan Stewart [for seven seasons with the Panthers] and now I’m playing with Le’Veon. So I know what my role is when I come into a season. And when I have conversations with the other backs, I know what my role is. I knew what it was when I signed the contract here last year. So just having the mindset of knowing what I’m here for helps a lot. And at practice, when LeVeon is here, we split everything down the middle. He gets X amount of plays, I get X amount of plays. There is no favoritism shown. It just goes back to the idea of next man up.
BB: That “Next Man Up” mantra is something you hear all the time in the NFL. But you have been the living embodiment of it over the past two seasons. What does that phrase mean to you?
DW: It’s not just me. I don’t think there is any coach, or team in the NFL, that embodies that mantra more than the Pittsburgh Steelers. On this team you can’t go into a game and say, “I didn’t know that call,” or “we never ran this,” or “we never did that,” because everybody that is on this team is responsible for knowing their job in case you are asked to do that job. There is an accountability aspect here. You don’t want to let your teammates down. So I can’t just go out there and put on a helmet, having not paid attention in practice all week, and then get thrown out there on the field and I don’t know what I’m doing. I’d be doing my team an injustice, my teammates an injustice and myself an injustice.
BB: I imagine that you have heard the praise that has come your way over the last few weeks. Pundits have talked about how well you have been playing, they’ve been saying that maybe you shouldn’t be a backup, that you could be a feature back on another team if you wanted to be. Do you think about that at all?
DW: People are always going to label you, always try to put you in a box, always try to tag you as something. I don’t care what they say. If they are talking about me, that means I’m doing something right. I don’t listen to what they are talking about. My main focus is getting to the Super Bowl and winning it. That’s truly all that I care about it.
BB: Well now that you’ve brought up the Super Bowl, I guess I have to ask, how do you feel about your chances to get there and win one this year?
DW: We are sitting in a pretty good position. A year ago, when Le’Veon went down, the question was, can DeAngelo hold up? Then it became, How long can he hold up? Then, He can’t continue doing this. Then it became, What is he going to do this year? to, O.K., we’re finally comfortable with him. Nobody said anything about [Le’Veon being out this year], either in the Pittsburgh Steelers organization or the fan base, for that matter. The focus was solely on the Pittsburgh Steelers as a team. And once you make that headway and you get guys to believe in you, it was a little bit easier coming into this year. There were not as many questions surrounding [the situation] as there were last year.
BB: So with that said, what has been different for you this year compared to last?
DW: All that fanfare I got last year, I didn’t get that same fanfare this year. The media wanted to talk about it last year, but this year, it’s sort of expected. And it should have been like that the entire time. I spent nine years in Carolina as a starter. But you would think that I was a rookie taking over this big role that I had never done before when I got here last year.
BB: What was that like for you, after having such a long and successful career in the NFL to then have everyone be surprised to see that you were still pretty good at running the football?
DW: Comical. It was just comical. And funny. That’s how it felt.
BB: Are you happier this year, the way you’ve been able to stay a little more under the radar?
DW: It’s not that I’m happier this year, because it’s harder this year. It’s easy to impress somebody and get talked about when nobody knows anything about you or expects anything from you. It’s harder when they know something about you and they are still talking about you.
BB: How did you handle that increased attention last year?
DW: It was just an eye opener for me. It took me out of my comfort level in terms of being who I am. Like it went from, you are going to go unnoticed and you are going to continue to work your butt off, to being thrust into the limelight. And everything I’ve done up until this point, I haven’t done it by myself. I’ve benefited from great blocking up front. And that’s what it is right now—our O-line is the best in the business. If you look at my numbers, if you look at my age, this is stuff that I am not supposed to be doing. But I am able to do it because the guys up front are opening holes for me that you could run through.
BB: Well, you mention this unprecedented level of production that you’ve experienced for a running back at your age. Now that Le’Veon is returning, you will return to the backup role. So how does the success you've had this year factor in going forward?
DW: None of that changes me. Whether my number is called 20 times, 17 times, seven times, two times, or one time, I have to be ready. I have to be ready just in case I have to take 60 reps as opposed to six reps. I’ll always prepare as if I’ll be taking 60.
BB: Going forward, do you look at it like the Steelers now have two premier running backs?
DW: Man, I look at it like this: Le’Veon is going to push me and hopefully I can push Le’Veon to where we all benefit as a team and get better. We don’t work against each other, we work together. We are just working. Me, Le’Veon, the whole Pittsburgh Steelers, we are working.
BB: You seem very at peace with this whole situation. Not many players would be able to cast their ego aside after having such a strong start to the year.
DW: You have to understand I’m 33 years old. It was a process to get here. I don’t know when that transition happened. But when you first come into this league, the first few years, it’s 90% physical and 10% mental. But over the years, as you play more, it becomes 90% mental and 10% physical. I just don’t know when that transition happened. I can’t tell you what my younger self would do in this situation. But I can tell you where I am at right now.
BB: What’s your best-case scenario with how the rest of this season plays out, for you and the team?
DW: Winning a Super Bowl and hoisting that Lombardi Trophy. That’s the best-case scenario. Everything else is irrelevant. And what’s crazy is that’s how society sees it too. That’s how all the fans see it. There will be one team that wins a Super Bowl. This is what’s crazy. Four years from now, nobody will know who the Broncos beat to win Super Bowl 50. But they are going to know the Broncos won the Super Bowl. And nobody will know that the team they beat went 17–2.
BB: I’ve always found that to be inherently unfair. One team wins the Super Bowl, and the other 31 teams have seasons that are looked at as being a failure. But you seem kind of O.K. with that?
DW: No, not kind of O.K. with it. I am O.K. with that. Because I’m going to win it. I’m going to be part of that group that they remember, not a part of that group that they forget. And whatever role they need me to do to get there, that’s what it’ll be.