"I wish we could have watched the '70s Steelers together."
That was a sentiment often echoed by my late grandfather when I would visit him at my grandparent's home in Baldwin, Pennsylvania.
I'll be saying the same thing to my grandkids about Jerome Bettis.
Watching the Bus at the height of his powers is something I wish every Steelers (and NFL fan, for that matter) could have witnessed. I'm sure Lions and Bears fans feel the same way about Barry Sanders and Walter Payton, respectively. Running is an art for the great running backs, each one different yet all effective in their own way.
Bettis had all the intangibles of the great running backs: size, speed, versatility, power, and intelligence. But he also possessed something that in my opinion makes him a surefire Hall-of-Famer.
How Bettis performed in every game during his prime normally dictated the outcome. If a team could contain Bettis, the opposing team knew their chances at winning improved significantly. If Bettis and Pittsburgh established the run, the Black and Gold usually prevailed. The opposition's game plan was always centered on stopping No. 36.
Statistically, Bettis' best seasons were his first two in Pittsburgh in 1996 and '97.
Pittsburgh was 17-3 during that span when Bettis rushed for over 100 yards. Conversely, the team went 3-12 when Bettis was held to under triple digits. His 1,431 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns in '96 included 10 100-yard games. The Steelers were 9-1 in those games.
After rushing for 1,429 yards as a rookie in '93, Bettis spent two more seasons in St. Louis before the Steelers acquired him in the '96 offseason. Somewhat forgotten as a top-tier NFL back, Bettis' coming out party that year took place during his 133 yard, two touchdown effort against the visiting Bills on Monday Night Football in Week 3. Showcasing his underrated speed, Bettis outraced everyone to the end zone on a 43-yard touchdown jaunt in the team's 24-6 win.
The Bus gave the Steelers offense a tougher mindset and attitude. That attitude was on display when Pittsburgh traveled to face the Chiefs later that season on Monday Night Football. The tone was set when Bettis and fullback Tim Lester entered the stadium dressed in army fatigues. They left the stadium with a victory and another 100-yard effort by the Bus.
Bettis tallied 10 more 100-yard games in '97 on his way to 1,665 yards as the Steelers won their fourth consecutive division crown. Pittsburgh was 8-2 when Bettis rushed for over 100 yards that season. The Bus was truly special that season. He literally carried defenders on his way to his second consecutive Pro Bowl.
Jerome Bettis should be in the Hall of Fame this year. Let's do it Bus.— Mike Tomlin (@CoachTomlin) January 30, 2014
Even when Bettis didn't gain 100 yards, he still made his presence felt. In a 23-17 win over division rival Jacksonville in Week 9, Bettis took a Kordell Stewart shovel pass 17 yards to the house in overtime to seal the victory. Hall-of-Fame players still find a way to make their mark in a game where they may have had their strengths neutralized.
Yes, Bettis did have a very solid offensive line led by Dermontti Dawson and a dominating defense to support him. But he was also paired with the solid yet unspectacular Mike Tomczak in 1996 and first year starter Kordell Stewart in '97. Defenses stacked the box in those days, daring the Steelers to throw. Even with the bull's eye on his back, Bettis continued to produce.
My favorite memory of Bettis that season took place when the team faced the Broncos in Week 15. A week after rushing for 142 yards and three touchdowns against the Cardinals, Pittsburgh called on Bettis to close out the game with Pittsburgh nursing a 28-24 lead in the fourth quarter.
Bettis delivered like he always did, and the helpless Denver defense could do nothing to stop him. Bettis brought the 60,000 plus fans at Three Rivers Stadium to their feet late in the game when the Bus carried three Broncos past midfield on the game-clinching drive. With Bettis as the battering ram, the Steelers scored on that drive and won the game, 35-24.
It wasn't like Bettis was gaining all these yards against soft defenses. Twice a year, he faced Houston's always tough rush defense coached by Jeff Fisher. He also did battle with Ray Lewis and the Ravens twice a year. Bettis ran for 100 yards in consecutive years against a stingy Chiefs defense led by Derrick Thomas.
Bettis was Pittsburgh's lone bright spot from 1998-00 as the team went through struggles at quarterback and personal changes at receiver and on the offensive line. Still, Bettis gained 1,000 plus yards each season. While his yards per carry average dipped due to defenses gearing up more than ever to stop him, the Bus kept plugging away.
In 2001, Bettis finally got some support on offense, as Stewart regained his '97 form with emerging receivers Plaxico Burress and Hines Ward. With more room to roam, the Bus averaged 4.8 yards per carry as Pittsburgh reached the AFC Championship game.
Bettis and the Steelers went through more growing pains the next two years. The defense was mostly starting over with young players, while Stewart struggled at the start of the '02 season and was replaced by Tommy Maddox. The Steelers new philosophy would be to try to outduel opponents using a primarily passing offense. Always a team player, Bettis accepted his new albeit diminished role.
As he entered training came in 2004, Bettis was expected to fill a role that had been a foreign concept to him in his previous 11 seasons: backup. Pittsburgh had brought in Deuce Staley from Philadelphia in an effort to give balance to the offense. While Staley did well early, a midseason injury sidelined him for the second half of the season. With the undefeated Eagles looming, the Steelers rode the Bus, who gained 149 yards against the eventual NFC Champions in Pittsburgh's 27-3 whiplashing of Philadelphia.
Bettis continued to pile up 100-yard games that season while keeping the pressure off of rookie Ben Roethlisberger. The 32-year-old Bettis made the Pro Bowl as Pittsburgh won a franchise record 15 regular season games.
A dozen years of colliding with defenders was finally catching up to the Bus in 2005.But after losing the AFC title game to the Patriots, Roethlisberger begged Bettis to return in '05 with the promise of delivering the 13-year veteran a Super Bowl ring.
As "Fast" Willie Parker blossomed into a premier back, Bettis' new role on the team would be as the team's closer. To convert third and shorts and other goal line situations when defenses knew the Steelers would run. He would also be called upon to close out games in the fourth quarter with Pittsburgh ahead and defenses on their heels.
Bettis mastered his role, even though that helped diminish his career yards per carry average (it's hard to keep up a 4.0 yards per carry average when you only get the ball on third and one and defenses putting 10 in the box ). But always the team player, Bettis didn't complain.
Fast forward to Week 14. At 7-5, the Steelers were out of the playoff picture and would need to win out to make the postseason. They faced a Chicago Bears team that boasted one of the best defenses in the NFL.
With their season on the line, Pittsburgh again turned to the Bus. It was a classic scene that perfectly suited Bettis. The snow fell throughout the second half as the field as Heinz Field resembled more of a muddy horse track.
The Bus weathered the storm and the Bears, rushing for over 100 yards that included knocking over All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher for the game-clinching touchdown. The score prompted Steelers radio broadcaster Bill Higrove to say, "If you asked me what Jerome Bettis is all about, I'd show you that play."
Bettis mastered his closer role for the rest of the season and throughout the playoffs, scoring touchdowns in two of the team's three playoff games. He helped close out the team's victory in Super Bowl XL, his final game. Watching the Bus hold aloft the Vince Lombardi Trophy at game's end was a moment Steelers fans that watched it won't ever forget.
An enjoying part of many Steelers games was when Bettis and the offensive line did close out those games. As he picked himself up after another bruising run, Bettis would shake his head, as if to say to the defense, "You can't stop me. You can't stop us."
One of my best friends can't stand Jerome Bettis. As a fan of other teams growing up, he hated when his teams played the Steelers. My friend said one of his most frustrating experiences as a sports fan was watching the Steelers and Bettis run out the clock against teams he cheered for. Thankfully, I'll never know how frustrating that must have been.
Bettis has the stats Hall of Fame voters surely look for; he's the sixth all-time leading rusher. He has six Pro Bowls selections and two All-Pro selections (albeit his career yards per carry average is a strike against him the Hall of Fame voters' eyes). But look past the stats and remember how Bettis played and the impact he had on each game.
Ask Bill Cowher how much he loved having Bettis in the fourth quarter and his team trying to kill the clock. Ask Tomzcak, Stewart, Maddox and Big Ben what handing off to Bettis did for them. Ask Pittsburgh's offensive line how rewarding it was to block for him. Ask Steelers defenses back then what is was like on the sidelines watching Bettis punish the opposing defense and give them better field positions to work with. Ask opposing defenses how frustrating it was to know No.36 was getting the ball, but there still wasn't anything they could do to stop him. Ask opposing coaches how much of an impact Bettis was when they faced the Steelers.
Regardless of whether or not Bettis is elected into Canton Saturday night, it won't change the way Steelers fans view the Bus. Steelers fans are thankful for the effort he put forth, the records he broke, and the Super Bowl he helped the Steelers win.
I'm thankful for stories of the Bus that I'll be able to share with my kids and grandkids.
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