Bettis finished his career 5th on the NFL All-time Rushing List.
Picture this. It’s early January, the temperature is in the low teens as the wind and snow blow in off the banks of the point where the three rivers of Ohio, Alleghaney and Monongahela meet. The grass in Heinz Field is covered in a mix of snow and mud from 300 plus pound men’s cleats grinding it to a mess. Perfect for old school football. The kind where a 5 foot 11, 255 pound running back is counted on to run over men his size and bigger to glory, otherwise known as the end zone. Jerome Bettis did that time and time again for 13 season.
That’s the signature play of Jerome “The Bus” Bettis career. Bettis was nicknamed “The Bus” because of his physical build, running style and the black & yellow uniform he wore for ten seasons with the Steelers. But also, because like a school bus, he was reliable to carry the goods—the football— through all conditions, especially during those winter months in Pittsburgh.
Bettis’ running style was built for heavy winters. Photo Courtesy: Steelers.com
Bettis looked like a fullback, but had the quick, shifty feet of a scat back. When he retired after the 2005 season, Bettis was ranked 5th all time in rushing yards in NFL history—he’s now sixth. All of the top ten all time rushers who are eligible, are in the Hall of Fame. Yet “Bus” has had to wait. He’s been a finalist now three times since he became eligible in 2011.
Those who support Bettis will point out how great he was in pass protection, how he was an unbelievable leader on teams that won 5 Division championships and was a constant Super Bowl contender, playing in four AFC Conference Championship games and a Super Bowl. Bettis is a 6 time NFL Pro Bowler, 3 time All-Pro (2 on 1st team, 1 2nd team) and had 8 seasons over 1,000 yards rushing. His coaches and opponents on the field will point out how much of a tone setter he was with his throwback, smash mouth running style.
Those who have not voted for him to get into the Hall, cite his lack of involvement in the passing game–200 receptions for 1449 yards and 3 touchdowns receiving which is the least amount among the top 10 all time rushers. They say he wasn’t much of a versatile runner, especially on the edges–averaging 3.9 yards per attempt, but never more than 4 in his final nine seasons. His yards per carry dropped every season until he retired from 3.8 to 3.2.
In the movie business, screenwriters put as much emphasis on the final image as they do Act II. Unfortunately for Bettis, many voters for the Hall of Fame have ignored the fact that he played and won a Super Bowl in his final game (SB XL).
What they remember is that in his final four seasons in the Burgh, his productivity declined as he became a short yardage and goal line back, as he split carries with the likes of Willie Parker, Amos Zeroue, Duece Staley and others. His last four seasons he never ran for one thousand yards, the closest he came was 941 in the 2004 season, when he played in 15 of 16 games. By the way, the Steelers went 15-1 that year and made it to the AFC Championship game. His final season he only rushed for 368 yards, but missed 4 games due to injury.
The other running backs near Bettis on the all time rushing list, fared much better individually in their final chapter. Emmitt Smith went to Arizona and still manage to gain 937 Yards for the Cardinals, Curtis Martin rushed for 735 Yards in his final season in a New York Jets uniform, Walter Payton finished his career with a 533 yard season and Jim Brown and Barry Sanders both went out in their primes with 1544 and 1491 yards respectively.
This is the problem for Bettis, he’s being compared against the greatest backs in history, instead of his place in history during his era. If he doesn’t get in soon, he will be compared against the next great running backs; LaDanian Tomlinson—he will be eligible in 2017—Edgerrin James, Eddie George and others.
The Bus ram rodded over opponents that stood in his way. His current opposers won’t be so easy to truck through. But, as he is now one of the seventeen finalists for induction in 2014—and the only running back—for a third time, the Bus’ Bust in Canton could be just a short bus ride away. We’ll find out on February 1st when the new class is announced at the Super Bowl in New York.