21 Pittsburgh Steelers have entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Jerome Bettis arrives in Canton carrying a special distinction. Number 36 aka “The Bus,” Jerome Bettis enters the Hall of Fame as one player who truly was “the face of the franchise” during his entire career.
- Consider the company Bettis shares in Canton and let that sink in for a moment.
Jerome Bettis became the face of the franchise the moment he arrived in Pittsburgh and held that distinction until the Bus stopped in Detroit at Super Bowl XL, making him unique among Steelers Hall of Famers.
- You can make the case that Joe Greene held and still holds “Face of the Franchise” status.
As Steel Curtain Rising has argued that Joe Greene defines the very essence of a Pittsburgh Steeler, you’ll find no rebuttals here. But while playing Greene shared “Face of the Franchise” status with Franco Harris early on, and with the likes of Jack Lambert, Lynn Swann and Terry Bradshaw later.
In contrast, Jerome Bettis held uncontested status as the “Face of the Franchise” status while wearing the Black and Gold.
1996-1997 Pittsburgh Hops on the Bus!
Jerome Bettis arrived in Pittsburgh via a draft day trade in in 1996, when the Steelers were reeling from their loss in Super Bowl XXX. History has not been kind to Super Bowl losers, note Mike Tomlin’s Steelers have yet to win a playoff game since losing Super Bowl XLV, and Pittsburgh had just lost starters Neil O’Donnell, Leon Searcy, Tom Newberry, and Bam Morris.
The Steelers won their division in 1996 and it took two Kordell Stewart goal line interceptions a last minute John Elway comeback in 1997 to keep them out of the Super Bowl.
At the time, commentators marveled at Bill Cowher and Tom Donahoe’s continued winning despite suffering annual exodus of free agents. Cowher and Donahoe do deserve credit. But anyone seeking to understand the Steelers post-Super Bowl XXX resilience would do well to look at who arrived in Pittsburgh, rather than with left and no arrival was more important that of Jerome Bettis.
- Fans forget, but Jerome Bettis didn’t start the first three games of the 1996 season.
But it’s a testament to how quickly Bettis bonded with the city, and the Steelers Nationwide legion of fans, that by the time Erric Pegram’s week 3 injury cleared the way for Bettis to claim the starting role, he’d already logged 2 100 yard games. More tellingly his nick name, “The Bus,” was already lingua franca in Steelers Nation.
The ’96 and ’97 Steelers success was certainly a team effort, but it’s almost impossible to find a key win during either season that did not feature a dominating performance by Jerome Bettis.
1998-1999 Steelers Struggle, But Bettis Shines
The Steelers disappointed in 1998 and 1999 just as deeply as they surprised in 1996 and 1997. A series of critical draft day errors prevented the Steelers from replacing key free agent departures, and the results showed on the field. Nearly every spot on the Steelers depth chart presented glaring liabilities, every spot that is except running back.
Jerome Bettis, while a worthy Hall of Famer, was still a mortal. His performance dropped off in both of those seasons, prompting some of the more ignorant fans and members of the press to call for Bettis replacement with his back up, Richard Huntley.
The truth is that during those dark days, Jerome Bettis was by far the most consistent player on the roster, and one who stubbornly refused to quit during not one but two late-season implosions. Forced to run behind make-shift offensive lines, Bettis still managed over 1,000 yards in both seasons.
2000-2001 The Bus Fuels Bill Cowher’s “Second Wind”
After the 1999 season the Cowher-Donahoe feud came to a head, and Dan Rooney sided with Bill Cowher and brought in Kevin Colbert to replace him.
Colbert retooled the Steelers offensive line in 2000, and Bettis bounced back. Jerome Bettis helped rally the Steelers from a 0-3 start with a gallant effort in a major upset over Jacksonville, followed by three straight 100 yard games. Later, Bettis helped fuel a critical Steelers victory over Oakland and Bettis took over the final game at Three Rivers Stadium, leading the Steelers to victory over the Redskins. (And boy did Myron Cope enjoy rubbing that one in on Daniel Snyder!)
Bettis was a free agent after the 2000 season, but the Bus, gave the Steelers every chance to resign him, and Bettis rewarded them by exploding in 2001. Bettis, and the rest of the 2001 Steelers took the NFL by storm. By early December Bettis broke the 1,000 yard rushing barrier and was en route to a 1,500 yard plus effort.
- Unfortunately, and ironically, an injury derailed Bettis in early December and that ushered in an era when his hold on the “Face of the Franchise” status was most tenuous.
The Steelers made it to the playoffs, and won their first game vs. the defending Super Bowl champions Ravens with Bettis unable to play due to a pain killing shot that numbed his entire leg. He was ineffective in the Steelers first AFC Championship loss to New England.
2002-2003 The Bus Downshifts, but Still Rumbles
Bettis began the 2002 season as the starter, but the Steelers struggled early on, as Kordell Stewart gave way to Tommy Maddox, and the era of “Tommy Gun” was born. Still, Bettis 100 yard effort in week 6 sparked a 5 game winning streak that transformed the Steelers from a 2-3 team to a 5-3-1 team contending for the division title.
The success of Tommy Gun down the stretch in 2002 convinced Bill Cowher to flirt with a “pass-first” offense and accordingly he started Amos Zereoue, relegating Bettis to the bench. Six weeks into the season the Steelers record stood at 2-4, it was clear that Tommy Maddox couldn’t read Cover-2, and the Amos Zereoue experiment was a failure. Bill Cowher responded by doing one of the things he did best – he hopped on The Bus.
- It would be poetic to write that Bettis’ return to the starting lineup sparked a turn around.
Alas, it did not. But Bettis brought attitude to the offense and, for whatever else you can say about the 6-10 2003 Steelers, those men contested every last blade of grass until the season’s final gun. Bettis only rushed two 100 yard games that season. Both came in December, vs. the Raiders and the Chargers. The fact that those were the Steelers final two wins that season is not at all coincidental.
2004-2005 Jerome Bettis Is Closer as The Bus Stops @ Super Bowl XL
Bill Cowher issued a mandate to Ken Whisenhunt in 2004: Re-establish the run.
That was music to the diehards in Steelers Nation, but perhaps not so much for Bettis. In the off season the Steelers had signed Duce Staley, while Bettis had to agree to a pay cut. Bettis appeared to be settling into his new role as Steelers elder statesman, and as Bill Cowher used him used him to score touchdowns at the goal line.
By week 7 Duce had wracked up 707 yards looked like he was building to a dominating performance, but fell injured in the Steelers victory over the Patriots. While a young man by the name of Willie Parker was on the Steelers roster, he’d yet to prove himself. And here the Steelers stood at 6-1 awaiting an undefeated Eagles team with a rookie quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger and an offense designed to run…. What to do?
- Fortunately for the Bus was all too eager to show Pittsburgh just how much traction he had left on his tires.
Bettis started vs. Philadelphia and ran roughshod over the Eagles for 149 yards, the second performance best in his career. He then proceeded to rip off four straight 100 yard rushing performances, yielded the starting job back to Staley when he return, and then closed the season with two more performances that broke the century mark. (For the record Bettis finished the season 59 yards shy of 1,000, by which time Richard Huntley had been out of football for 2 years….)
During the playoffs Bettis and Staley teamed to bludgeon the New York Jets in an exhibition of Smash Mouth football excellence not seen in Pittsburgh since the days of Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier. Although Bettis ran well the next week in the AFC Championship vs. the Patriots, Ben Roethlisberger began to play like a rookie and the Steelers came up short.
The moment moved Hines Ward to tears.
And he was crying because he feared the loss doomed Bettis chances of winning a Super Bowl. Bettis did consider retiring, but when the Steelers convened at St. Vincent’s, Bettis was there, handing out T-Shirts exclaiming, “Super Bowl XL, Detroit, The Bus Stops Here.”
The Steelers 2005 season was a topsy turvy affair. For a while it looked like the Steelers won’t even make the playoffs, let alone contend for the Super Bowl. The media anointed the Colt’s as the team of destiny.
But after a three game losing streak that left the Steelers at 7-5, Bill Cowher once again turned to the Bus as the Steelers hosted the 9-3 Chicago Bears and Bettis took over, stoning Brian Urlacher on the way to a 101 two touchdown performance.
With Bettis serving as inspiration for the entire team, the 2005 Steelers closed out the season with 8 straight wins, including three road games in the playoffs. The night before the AFC Championship vs. Denver, Bettis implored his teammates “Take me home.”
His teammates did take him home, doing him the honor of walking out during team introductions all by himself. The Pittsburgh Steelers of course triumphed in Super Bowl XL in a game where they made their own opportunities.
- When it was all over, standing on the dais, Lombardi in his hand, Jerome Bettis announced that “the Bus stops here.”
It was a story book ending to career. But Bettis was wrong. The Bus still had one more stop, and that is Canton, Ohio’s Pro Football Hall of Fame, where Jerome Bettis enters as the face of the Steelers franchise.