Sending a Message: Tony Dungy Names Donnie Shell Hall of Famer Presenter

Make no mistake about it Steelers Nation: Tony Dungy is making a statement by asking Donnie Shell to induct him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Tony Dungy, Donnie Shell, Hall of Fame, Pittsburgh Steelers, Training camp 1982

Tony Dungy coaches his former mentor Donnie Shell at St. Vincents in July 1982; Photo Credit: George Gojkovich, Getty Images

Election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is the highest individual honor a football player can attain. To date, only 303 players, coaches, or builders have secured induction into Canton. The site Pro Football Reference lists 3,860 defensive backs alone, highlighting just how elite the men wearing the gold blazers are.

  • Hall of Famers, in turn, have the chance to bestow their own honor by choosing their presenter.

The choice of a Hall of Famer presenter is a highly personal one. Hall of Famers sometimes disappoint when they fail to choose a teammate or coach and instead tap a family member, college or high school coach or even a life-long friend. But this choice belongs to the Hall of Famer, and he has the right to ask whomever he wishes.

  • But Hall of Famer’s choice sends a strong signal about who that Hall of Famer is and what he stands for.

Dan Rooney asked Joe Greene to present him to confirm unequivocally that Greene’s arrival in Pittsburgh shifted the Steelers fortunes. In contrast, Steelers Nation took Terry Bradshaw’s choice of Verne Lunquist as his presenter as a slap in the face and a snub of Chuck Noll, Dan Rooney and the rest the Super Steelers.

John Stallworth chose his son, which must rank as one of the all-time father and son honors. Mike Webster gave Terry Bradshaw his final chance to put his hand under his butt. Franco Harris chose Lynn Swann to boost his Hall of Fame chances, and Lynn Swann returned the favor for Stallworth.

And so it is with Tony Dungy and Donnie Shell.

Tony Dungy’s Special Relationship with Donnie Shell

Tony Dungy’s play for the Pittsburgh Steelers as a defensive back and later contributions as defensive coordinator did not earn him his spot in Canton. He’s getting elected for his accomplishments as Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Indianapolis Colts head coach and for being the first African American head coach to win a Super Bowl.

  • It says here that’s a Hall of Fame resume.

But Dungy’s decision to name Donnie Shell as his Hall of Famer presenter represents an implicit acknowledgement of his roots with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tony Dungy and Donnie Shell forged their relationship on the fields of St. Vincents Latrobe.

  • Like Donnie Shell, Tony Dungy came to Pittsburgh as an undrafted rookie free agent.
tony dungy, donnie shell, hall of fame

Donnie Shell takes instruction from former teammate Tony Dungy

Dungy made the Steelers final roster as a after his rookie training camp, and recorded 3 interceptions and even pulled double duty as an emergency quarterback in a road game against the Houston Oilers. According to Gary Pomerantz’s Their Life’s Work, Dungy missed several weeks of training camp during his sophomore season because of mononucleosis and feared he’d get cut because of it. Shell, his roommate and mentor challenged him to put his faith ahead of football.

  • Dungy did so and led the Steelers in interceptions that Super Bowl season.

Donnie Shell, along with Greene, Franco Harris traveled to Tampa to comfort Dungy when his 18 year old son James tragically took his own life in 2005. As Pomerantz notes, Shell felt like he and Dungy were still teammates.

And now Dungy is doing his part to boost the Hall of Fame chances of his teammate.

Hall of Fame Case for Donnie Shell

Of all of the greats from the Steel Curtain defense, Donnie Shell might be the most overlooked and most forgotten. He shouldn’t be.

Shell joined the Steelers as an undrafted rookie free agent in summer of 1974 along with the Steelers legendary 1974 Draft Class. Shell found himself behind Pro Bowler Glen Edwards, but the Steelers traded Edwards, in part, to get Shell into the line up.

Stats compiled by the Dallas Morning News’s  Rick Gosselin show how wise of a decision that was. Between 1974 and 1987, Donnie Shell played in 201 games and started 162. During those games Shell:

  • Intercepted 51 passes
  • Recovered 19 fumbles
  • Earned 4 Super Bowl rings
  • Made 5 trips to the Pro Bowl and was named to 3 All Pro teams
  • Won Steelers MVP honors in 1980 on a team with 8 Hall of Famers starting

Shell’s 51 interceptions tie him for 32nd on the all time interceptions list, and if that sounds pedestrian, over a dozen Hall of Famer’s on Pro Football Reference’s list of interception leaders have less (although to be fair, not all of those are defensive backs.) As Dungy himself told Gosselin:

Donnie played in the box and was like another linebacker as a run defender. He was probably the most physical player on a physical defense and also had 51 interceptions. He covered Hall-of-Fame tight ends like Ozzie Newsome man-to-man and covered wide receivers in the nickel package. He patrolled the deep zones. He could do it all.

Yes, Donnie Shell could do it all that’s a Troy Polamaluesque resume. Make no mistake about it, by asking Donnie Shell to induct him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tony Dungy is giving his former teammate and lifelong friend a platform that highlight’s Shell’s own Hall of Fame credentials.

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Former Steelers Kevin Green and Tony Dungy Elected to Pro Football Hall of Fame, Alan Faneca Must Wait

While it might not evoke cheers of “Here We Go Steelers Here We Go!” the way it did for Jerome Bettis last summer, the Pro Football Hall of Fame 2016 class has been announced and this year’s class as a Black and Gold tinge.

  • Former Steelers outside linebacker Kevin Greene was elected along side former Steelers defensive back and defensive coordinator, Tony Dungy.

Kevin Greene Shined in Black and Gold

In the spring of 1993 NFL teams literally tripped over themselves to land free agents such as Reggie White. Ticker tape parades were thrown, keys to cities were bestowed, and there was much pomp and circumstance. The Steelers took a low key approach, and one of the signings they made was that of Kevin Greene.

By the time the Steelers signed Greene, he was over 30 years old and had amassed 72.5 sacks. Yet he was little known outside of the NFC West, where he’d played for 8 years for the Los Angeles Rams. That changed in a hurry, as Bill Cowher pared him with Greg Lloyd, and together the tandem terrorized opposing quarterbacks for the next three seasons.

  • Greene played for the Steelers from 1993 to 1995, with his last game being Super Bowl XXX.

During that time Kevin Greene amassed 35.5 sacks, but the Steelers opted to let him depart via free agency, thinking his best days were behind him. That conclusion was very, very wrong, as Greene would go on to play for 4 more years and register another 52 sacks in the process.

As it was, Greg Lloyd’s next two seasons would be shortened by injury, the Steelers would lose Chad Brown in another year, Jason Gildon would show he was good but not great, and Carlos Emmons provided average play until the Steelers could draft and develop Joey Porter.

Dungy’s Roots Trace Back to Pittsburgh

The Steelers drafted Tony Dungy in 1977, and he played as a back up defensive back. His most notable feats were subbing as emergency quarterback as a rookie in 1977 when Terry Bradshaw and Mike Kruczek both got hurt. Dungy’s performance was a disaster, but he did complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Dungy also become one of the few modern era players to both record and throw and interception in the same game.

[Editors note, the orginal version of this article had an error, which has been redacted and corrected below.]

  • Tony Dungy’s biggest play for the Steelers came in Super Bowl XIII, when he forced a fumble after the Dallas Cowboy’s final on-sides kick which Rocky Bleier recovered.
  • Tony Dungy’s biggest play for the Steelers came in Super Bowl XIII, when he forced Randy White fumble which Dennis Winston recovered. One play later, Bradshaw hooked up with Swann in the end zone

Despite that, the Steelers traded Dungy after the 1978 season, and he played another year in San Francisco.

tony dungy, steeles, defensive coordinator, african american, chuck noll

George Gojkovich, Getty Images – In 1984 Chuck Noll made Tony Dungy the NFL’s youngest defensive coordinator

Dungy spent 1980 coaching defensive backs for the University of Minnesota, but a year later Noll brought him back to Pittsburgh, first as a defensive assistant, then as a defensive backs coach. In 1984, Noll promoted Tony Dungy to defensive coordinator at age 29, making him one of the first, if not the first, African American defensive coordinators.

Dungy’s first two years as defensive coordinator were so successful that he was touted as possibly being the NFL’s first African American head coach. The Steelers defense declined in 1986 and 1987, as the full impact of the Steelers mediocre drafting of the early and mid 1980’s was felt. Nonetheless, in 1987 the Steelers defensive touchodowns, and were 5th in take aways.

  • The Steelers defense fell on hard times in 1988, finishing dead last.

Indeed, the 1988 Steelers finished 5-11, but saw 4th quarter leads evaporate in at least 3 games. Dan Rooney decided to order changes, and in the ensuring scuffle, Tony Dungy opted to resign rather than accept demotion.

  • In an ironic twist of fate, Chuck Noll replaced Dungy with Kanas City’s Rod Rust, while Dungy took a position under new Kansas City defensive coordinator Bill Cowher’s staff….

Dungy of course, never did succeed Chuck Noll as many once expected him to, but he did go on to become the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he hired and mentored Mike Tomlin has his defensive backs coach.

Tony Dungy rightly wins Hall of Fame induction for his work as Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach and for becoming the first African American to win a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts, but he made important contributions while a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers and, in many ways, his influence lives on in the organization.

Faneca Must Wait

The Hall of Fame candidate with the strongest ties to the Pittsburgh Steelers organization will have to wait another year. Former Steelers, Jets and Cardinals guard Alan Faneca was a candidate for induction into the Hall of Fame, but did not receive the necessary votes.

  • This was Faneca’s first year of eligibility, and it is not unusual for offensive lineman, who lack statistics and other high-profile measures of success, to wait several years to get induction.

Joining Greene on the Hall of Fame dias are Brett Favre, Marvin Harrison, Orlando Pace, Ken Stabler, Dick Stanfel and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartlo Jr.

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Former Steelers Alan Faneca, Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene Hall of Fame Semifinalists

Former Steelers Alan Faneca, Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene Hall of Fame Semifinalists

The Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee has announced the 25 finalists for the 2016 Hall of Fame class. In his first year of eligibility former Pittsburgh Steelers guard Alan Faneca has made it to the semifinalist round, and is joined by other recent retirees, Brett Favre and Terrell Owens.

Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back, emergency quarterback, and defensive coordinator Tony Dungy has again made it to the semifinal round, as has former Steelers linebacker Kevin Greene.

The Pittsburgh Steelers 1998 draft offers a model example of how long it can truly take to evaluate in NFL draft class. When Dan Rooney chose Bill Cowher over Tom Donahoe in January 2000, the Steelers 1998 draft was better known for busts like defensive tackle Jeremy Staat and failed offensive tackle Chris Conrad.

  • Yet, during the 1998 draft the Steelers also picked Deshea Townsend, Hines Ward and Alan Faenca, who was easily Tom Donahoe’s best first round pick.

Unlike defensive players, and offensive “skill” players, there are no statistics to measure the work of offensive lineman. Yet it is there toiling in the trenches that allows the quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers to amass the video game like statistics that keep Fantasy Football owners happy. Alan Faneca was one of the better offensive lineman, and arguably the best guard in Steelers history.

Lacking any stats to back up his claim, let’s just show you a piece of his finest handiwork (YouTube video available as of 11/25/15):

Everyone remembers Willie Parker’s 75 yard scamper to the end zone on Super Bowl XL. But what’s less memorable, but no less important, is that Alan Faneca made that play possible by pulling, and totally eliminating the Seattle Seahawks defender from the play, creating a giant hole for Fast Willie to run through.

  • It is difficult to assess how good Alan Faneca’s chances of getting into the Hall of Fame are.

The current group of 25 finalists will be narrowed further to a group of finalists, who will be debated by the Hall of Fame selection committee and announced prior to the Super Bowl. In recent years former Pittsburgh Steelers have suffered from the “Already too many Steelers in the Hall of Fame” bias, which likely delayed the entry of Jerome Bettis and Dermontti Dawson into the Hall of Fame.

Offensive lineman, lacking quantitative measures, also often have to wait.

Time will tell.

Dungy, Greene, Knocking on Canton’s Door. Again.

Both Tony Dungy and Kevin Greene have been NFL Hall of Fame Semifinalists and finalists several times before, but have failed to make the cut as finalists. The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Tony Dungy as an unrestricted rookie free agent out of Minnesota in 1977.

Dungy, who’d played quarterback in college, spent a week working with the Steelers as a wide receiver before Chuck Noll decided to shift him to safety. Dungy remained at safety for two years with the Steelers, aside from a one game stint as Steelers emergency quarterback in which he managed to complete passes to both Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

The Steelers traded Dungy to the San Francisco 49ers after Super Bowl XIII (after Dungy had made the game-saving on-sides kick recovery).In 1981 Chuck Noll hired Tony Dungy as a defensive backs coach, and promoted him to defensive coordinator in 1984 making him both the youngest coordinator in the league at that time, and the first African American coordinator.

The Pittsburgh Steelers signed Kevin Greene as an unrestricted free agent from the Los Angeles Rams in the spring of 1993. In Pittsburgh, Greene made the switch from defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker, where he started 48 games and 35.5 sacks.

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When Will Antonio Brown Peak? What Steelers Wide Receiver History Reveals

The Pittsburgh Steelers have an unqualified star in Antonio Brown. Kevin Colbert and Mike Tomlin saw enough of him to smash Steelers precedent and offer Brown a second contract after just two seasons.

  • But the Steelers and Antonio Brown also have a problem.

Antonio Brown is out performing his contract. Brown easily makes the NFL’s top five wide receiver list. Saying he belongs in the top 3 requires no stretch. Neither does it represent a stretch to assert that Antonio Brown is the NFL’s best wide receiver.

Yet, Brown’s compensation ranks 14th compared to his peers. His agent Drew Rosenhaus knows this and wants a new contract. Brown has 3 years remaining on the six year contract he signed in 2011. Kevin Colbert has clarified the Steelers will not renegotiate Brown’s contract. And, in terms of understanding this porblem, this is only the tip of the iceberg when you consider that Brown’s performance may have already peaked….

At What Age Do NFL Wide Receivers Peak?

Steel Curtain Rising has suggested a middle ground, that the Steelers should guarantee the rest of Brown’s contract. That’s a solid suggestion, but only a palliative step, as an article by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Ray Fittipaldo brings into focus:

Several studies over the years, including one this year by numberfire.com, indicate that receivers reach their peak at 26. Brown turned 27 last month.

That does not mean Brown’s numbers will decline anytime soon. Those same studies show that receivers don’t severely decline until age 32. After age 32, most receivers can’t match the production they enjoyed in their prime years.

The most important number is Brown’s age when his current contract runs out. He will turn 30 in 2018….

Looked at in that light, Drew Rosenhaus defiance appears all the more understandable and the numberfire.com article reveals why. Joseph Juan analyzed the performance of 27 elite wide receivers over the last 15 years and charted their production against their NFL experience and their age. While is Juan’s analysis is detailed and intricate, his conclusions are simple:

  • Most NFL wide receivers peak after 3 seasons and at age 26.

For as encompassing as Juan’s research may be, it included no Pittsburgh Steelers, which is strange because Hines Ward would seem to fit his criteria of having a career that spanned at least six seasons since 2000 and who made at least one Pro Bowl.

So the question is, how closely does the peak performance of Louis Lipps, Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, and Hines Ward, in a word Pittsburgh’s wide receivers conform to Juan’s findings? Let’s take a look.

Louis Lipps Peak Performance

steelers, louis lipps, statistics, career, peak, performance

Louis Lipps peaked early, but rebounded on a high plateau

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Louis Lipps with their first round pick in the 1984 NFL Draft making him the last great player picked by Art Rooney Jr.’s scouting department. By today’s standards Louis Lipps, whose career receptions topped out at 59, would not be considered an “elite” wide receiver. But when the Steelers drafted him, the 100 yard catch barrier had only been broken twice.

However, perhaps it’s fair to say that even taking into account the era he played in Louis Lipps was a good but not great receiver, but make no mistake:

  • Louis Lipps could and did do damage as a Steelers wide out.

Before Ben Roethlisberger and Mike Wallace arrived, Lipps and Bubby Brister owned the Steelers long passing record book with Lipps hauling in over 5 passes of over 75 yards.

In terms of Juan’s research, Lipps actually peeked in 1985 his second NFL season, at age 23. Injuries plagued him for the next two years, but in 1988, as if almost on cue, at age 26, Louis Lipps peaked again and continued to perform on a high plateau until turning 29 in 1991. (The Steelers cut Lipps in 1992 during a contract hold out. Lipps played in New Orleans and made 2 catches. The Steelers resigned him in 1993, but Lipps got cut in training camp.)

Lynn Swann’s Peak Performance

steelers, lynn swann, hall of fame, statistics, peak performance

Lynn Swann’s career statistics don’t do justice to his greatness

NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann needs no introduction to Steelers Nation. Lynn Swann played as a living legend. Swann’s acrobatic catches in Super Bowl X lead even the most skeptical among us to question whether Swann was an angle instead of a mere mortal.

Indeed, generations after his retirement, you still see folks who weren’t even born when Swann was playing observe a difficult reception and remark, “That was a Lynn Swann catch.”

While concussion concerns cut Swann’s career short, his body of work still lends itself to Juan’s analysis.

  • Again, almost as if on cue, we see that Swann’s best year came in 1978 at age 26.

Unlike the receivers studied by Juan, Swann’s performance dropped off, although his yards-per-catch average other statistics show that Swann remained a downfield threat when healthy.

John Stallworth’s Peak Performance

steelers, john stallworth, statistics, career, hall of fame, peak

John Stallworth’s late career rebound cemented his Hall of Fame status

The Steelers drafted Lynn Swann and John Stallworth together and it was their turnkey talent that allowed Chuck Noll to unleash Terry Bradshaw after the NFL shackled the Steelers defense with the Mel Blount rule.

As Steel Curtain Rising observed in it’s in-depth profile of John Stallworth (click here to read), Swann was often known as the “big play” receiver while Stallworth was a “possession receiver.” In truth, Stallworth was just as much of a big play receiver as Swann.

  • And, in the context of this article, he proves to be very much the exception to Juan’s research.

While Stallworth did post the highest yards-per-catch average at age 26, his best season didn’t come until 1984. Then, at age 32 Stallworth exploded for 80 catches and over 1300 yards, despite that fact that it was David Woodley and Mark Malone who were throwing to him.

Hines Ward’s Peak Performance

steelers, hines ward, statistics, peak, hall of fame

Hines Ward peaked at age 26, but performed at a high level well into his 30’s

Hines Ward universally known and loved in Steelers Nation, and while he’s often described as “a linebacker in a wide receiver’s body” Ward built a Hall of Fame worthy resume out of the brute force generated by his desire and determination.

  • And it was almost as if on cue that Ward peaked in 2002 when at age 26 he caught 112 passes for over 1300 yards

Ward’s performance following was more uneven than Juan’s research would suggest, but one must also factor in the fact that the transition from Tommy Maddox to Ben Roethlisberger conincided with Bill Cowher’s desire to “reestablish the run.” Ward’s performance did perk back up in 2008 and 2009 and didn’t really begin to decline until 2010, although Steel Curtain Rising would argue that even then Ward still continued to make critical catches in ways that numbers don’t measure.

When Will Antonio Brown Peak?

steelers, antonio brown, statistics, peak, contract, joseph juan

If numberfire.com’s Joseph Juan is right, Antonio Brown has already peaked….

Where does all of this leave Antonio Brown? First, with just four other Steelers wide receivers, this sample is far from statically valid. But they played in three very distinct NFL eras, and for wide spectrum of quarterbacks, from Hall of Famers to outright busts to others straddling the average to good continuum.

  • First, the evidence suggests that Antonio Brown has already hit his performance peak.

Past performance does not indicate future result, but Joseph Juan’s data says so, and so does the career trajectory of Swann, Lipps, and Ward, with Stallworth as an outlier. But the data also suggests that the Steelers can expect elite performance from Brown for several more years, and a post-30 resurgence isn’t out of the question.

  • But there’s also a downside: 2 of the 4 Steelers wide outs surveyed (Swann, Lipps) saw their career end abruptly.

Stallworth and Ward continued to play productively well into their 30’s however. But that dichotomy depicts the coin-flip nature of destiny in the NFL – careers can always end on one play.

Steel Curtain Rising has argued that the Steelers should not alter their contract renegotiation stance for Antonio Brown and that position stands. But based on the data, we’ll also say, one more time, the Steelers should guarantee the rest of Antonio Brown’s contract.

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How Jerome Bettis Career Bridges Steelers Super Bowl Eras

Jerome Bettis enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is special in so many ways. It is an honor that Bettis fought hard to earn, and one that he accepts as the face of the Steelers franchise. Jerome Bettis richly deserves this individual honor.

But it’s also special for Steelers Nation, because adding 1 Jerome Bettis Super Bowl ring to Canton unites the two Super Bowl eras for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Hall of Fame, Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, Three Rivers Stadium, Steelers vs. Redskins, Steelers Super Bowl eras

Hall of Famers Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris embrace at final game @ Three Rivers Stadium; Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

That might sound strange, given that Bettis enters Canton with only one Super Bowl ring, whereas Joe Greene wears six, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert (to name a few) wear four Super Bowl rings. Troy Polamalu and, if there’s any justice in the NFL Hines Ward, will enter with two. Ben Roethlisberger, God willing, will enter with more than two.

To understand how, its useful to borrow a concept from East African philosophy which divides humans into three categories, the living, the sasha and the zamani. Those recently passed away are the sasha, considered as living dead, because their memories live on in those who knew them. They only become truly dead, zamani, when the last person who knew them passes away.

If you apply that concept to pro football, a player will not be truly “retired” until the last person who played with him leaves the locker room. And if you apply the concept a little further, its easy to see how Bettis served as a bridge between the Steelers two Super Bowl eras.

Jerome Bettis of course never suited up for Chuck Noll, nor did he ever run through a hole opened by Mike Webster, nor did he ever throw a block for John Stallworth.

But these players were “sasha,” if we can continue to borrow these Kiswahili terms, because Bettis did play with Dermontti Dawson and John Jackson, who both manned the trenches alongside Webster as rookies. Bettis never shared a locker room with Dwayne Woodruff, but he did play with Rod Woodson, who used to room with Woodruff on the road and covered Stallworth in practice as a rookie.

Those legends imparted their wisdom, if only by example if not through direct lessons, to the holdovers from the Noll era who were still playing for Bill Cowher when Bettis arrived in Pittsburgh. Jerome Bettis absorbed those lessons, and The Bus in turn passed that wisdom on to the players of the Steelers second Super Bowl era.

  • The process also continues with the players who have succeeded Bettis.

Willie Parker, Health Miller, and James Harrison couldn’t help but learn from the example Bettis set in practice, on the playing field, in the locker room, and outside in the community. And these mean have in turn passed on that wisdom to today’s leaders, such as Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown, and hopefully the players like David DeCastro and Le’Veon Bell.

The Bus arrived in Pittsburgh on April 20, 1996. You generally measure progress of a vehicle in terms of distance. And measured by that metric Jerome Bettis 10,571 yards rushing in Pittsburgh was nothing short of incredible.

  • In the entire history of the NFL only 29 running backs have broken the 10,000 yard threshold.

Clearly, The Bus traveled far. But what’s perhaps more impressive, is The Bus’ travel through time, which allowed him to link Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV with Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII and, who knows, perhaps Super Bowl 50 or above….

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How 1 Jerome Bettis Super Bowl Ring Unites 2 Steelers Championship Eras

Jerome Bettis enshrinement in the Pro Football Hall of Fame is special in so many ways. It is an honor that Bettis fought hard to earn, and one that he accepts as the face of the Steelers franchise. Jerome Bettis richly deserves this individual honor.

But it’s also special for Steelers Nation, because adding 1 Jerome Bettis Super Bowl ring to Canton unites the two Super Bowl eras for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Hall of Fame, Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, Three Rivers Stadium, Steelers vs. Redskins, Steelers Super Bowl eras

Hall of Famers Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris embrace at final game @ Three Rivers Stadium; Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

That might sound strange, given that Bettis enters Canton with only one Super Bowl ring, whereas Joe Greene wears six, Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann and Jack Lambert (to name a few) wear four Super Bowl rings. Troy Polamalu and, if there’s any justice in the NFL Hines Ward, will enter with two. Ben Roethlisberger, God willing, will enter with more than two.

To understand how, its useful to borrow a concept from East African philosophy which divides humans into three categories, the living, the sasha and the zamani. Those recently passed away are the sasha, considered as living dead, because their memories live on in those who knew them. They only become truly dead, zamani, when the last person who knew them passes away.

If you apply that concept to pro football, a player will not be truly “retired” until the last person who played with him leaves the locker room. And if you apply the concept a little further, its easy to see how Bettis served as a bridge between the Steelers two Super Bowl eras.

Jerome Bettis of course never suited up for Chuck Noll, nor did he ever run through a hole opened by Mike Webster, nor did he ever throw a block for John Stallworth.

But these players were “sasha,” if we can continue to borrow these Kiswahili terms, because Bettis did play with Dermontti Dawson and John Jackson, who both manned the trenches alongside Webster as rookies. Bettis never shared a locker room with Dwayne Woodruff, but he did play with Rod Woodson, who used to room with Woodruff on the road and covered Stallworth in practice as a rookie.

Those legends imparted their wisdom, if only by example if not through direct lessons, to the holdovers from the Noll era who were still playing for Bill Cowher when Bettis arrived in Pittsburgh. Jerome Bettis absorbed those lessons, and The Bus in turn passed that wisdom on to the players of the Steelers second Super Bowl era.

  • The process also continues with the players who have succeeded Bettis.

Willie Parker, Health Miller, and James Harrison couldn’t help but learn from the example Bettis set in practice, on the playing field, in the locker room, and outside in the community. And these mean have in turn passed on that wisdom to today’s leaders, such as Lawrence Timmons, Cameron Heyward, Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown, and hopefully the players like David DeCastro and Le’Veon Bell.

Jerome Bettis Super Bowl Ring, Steelers Super Bowl XL Ring,

Steelers Super Bowl XL Ring. Photo Credit: Peter Diana, Post-Gazette

The Bus arrived in Pittsburgh on April 20, 1996. You generally measure progress of a vehicle in terms of distance. And measured by that metric Jerome Bettis 10,571 yards rushing in Pittsburgh was nothing short of incredible.

  • In the entire history of the NFL only 29 running backs have broken the 10,000 yard threshold.

Clearly, The Bus traveled far. But what’s perhaps more impressive, is The Bus’ travel through time, which allowed him to link Super Bowls IX, X, XIII and XIV with Super Bowl XL and Super Bowl XLIII and, who knows, perhaps Super Bowl 50 or above….

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The Accidental Steeler: Remembering the Jerome Bettis Trade

When Jerome Bettis dons the gold lapel and takes his place behind the podium at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, few in Steelers Nation will remember the events of September 19th 1993. But perhaps they should, because the day marks the beginning of the circuitous route that brought The Bus to Pittsburgh.

The concept of a franchise running back is quaint in today’s NFL (although someone like Le’Veon Bell could revive it.) The game is just stilted too much in favor of the pass.

It wasn’t that way the 90’s. Thanks to players like Joe Montana the passing game was well into its accent by that time, but running backs still anchored championship franchises. Ask any Cowboy’s fan which of The Triplets was indispensable and they’ll respond in unison, “Emmitt Smith.”

And that brings us back to September 19th 1993…

Jerome Bettis, Jerome Bettis Heinz Field, Jerome Bettis Trade

Jerome Bettis romps towards the end zone @ Heinz Field. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

Before There Was Bettis, There Was Barry

…The week before a rookie from Notre Dame named Jerome Bettis had led the Los Angeles Rams as they trounced the Steelers 27-0, sending them back to Pittsburgh licking their 0-2 record.

Undaunted, during the succeeding week the Steelers gave lucrative contract extension to Barry Foster and on the following Sunday, September 19th, Foster led the Steelers on a 34-7 rampage over the Bengals.

  • The Steelers thought they’d found their franchise running back in Foster.

Appearances deceive however. The Steelers were wrong. Foster finished the season in injured reserve, and while he ran well in 1994, Foster’s flakiness, penchant for injuries, and the emergence of Bam Morris gave the Steelers second thoughts. When Foster rebuffed an invitation to a season-end interview by telling Bill Cowher to “Go to hell” that was it.

The Steelers traded Foster to Carolina for a song, Carolina cut Foster in training camp, and later retired after a single practice with the Cincinnati Bengals.

  • Foster’s final play was the pass he dropped from Neil O’Donnell that ended the heart-breaking 1994 AFC Championship game.

The Steelers planned to solider on with Bam Morris and added Erric Pegram in the off season. Morris however arrived at St. Vincent’s overweight and out of shape. Pittsburgh started him anyway, but the 1995 Steelers didn’t turn their season around until Cowher benched Morris in favor of Pegram.

  • The 1995 Steelers made it all the way to Super Bowl XXX, and Bam Morris played well down the stretch.

The Steelers seemed to have a solid backfield in place with Pegram and Morris, but then disaster struck – Morris was stopped by a police office, his car was searched and drugs were found. The Steelers were less than two months from removed from a near Super Bowl upset, and they’d lost their starting quarterback, starting right tackle, starting outside linebacker, and now their feature back….

Oil and Water – Jerome Bettis and Rich Brooks

On the same afternoon, Bettis was held to 33 yards as the Rams dropped a 20 to 10 decision to New York. His rookie NFL season was only three games old, but Bettis had yet to crack the 100 yard mark for Chuck Knox. But ‘Ground Chuck’ was smart enough treat Bettis with patience rather than panic. Bettis got stronger as the season wore on, and finished with 1,429 yards rushing and won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors.

Bettis made the Pro Bowl again in 1994 and broke the 1,000 yard barrier again. But the Rams finished 4-12, and Rich Brooks replaced Chuck Knox has head coach as the franchise moved from LA to St. Louis. Brooks favored the pass, and took Bettis decision to hold out personally.

Jerome Bettis Rams, Jerome Bettis Trade

Jerome Bettis after the Rams home opener in 1995. Photo Credit: AP Photo/Mary Butkus

Brooks had it in for him. As Bettis recounted to Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “I’ll never forget, we were playing the Atlanta Falcons (in November). I had a 41-yard run, and after that run, he pulled me. I didn’t play the rest of the game. I’m thinking to myself, ‘What is going on?’ ”

  • The situation never got better.

The Rams held the 6th pick in the draft and had their eye on Lawrence Phillips. Philips was already on probation for assaulting his girlfriend, but Rich Brooks was in love. The Ram’s ownership was leery, but deferred to Brooks and general manager Steve Ortmayer. The Rams took Lawrence Philips.

So here were the Rams with two high priced feature backs and only one football to share between them. Rich Brooks thought Bettis could be a back up, or maybe move to fullback. Bettis said “thanks but no thanks.”

Steelers Trade for Jerome Bettis

With benefit of 20/20 hindsight the Steelers trade for Jerome Bettis during the 1996 Draft now looks inevitable. It wasn’t. Bettis, being the consummate pro he was, never talked to the media about his problems with Rich Books. On the surface Bettis looked like one rookie who stormed into the league and then saw his production drop off year-on-year after that.

  • Tom Donahoe was a stickler for research however. And he’d done his homework on Bettis.

Donahoe called Bettis coaches and teammates at Notre Dame. He worked the phones around the rest of the league. The Steelers were picking second to last and had had their eye on Mike Alsott. Instead, they opted to go with a proven commodity in Jerome Bettis.

The Steelers shipped for their second round pick in 1996 and their fourth round pick in 1997 in exchange for Bettis and the Ram’s third round pick. The Jerome Bettis trade was clearly the best trade in Pittsburgh Steelers history, and Jerome Bettis trade also marked the best move that Tom Donahoe made as Steelers Director of Football Operations.

For the record:

  • Lawrence Philips ran for 1,265 yards over the next two seasons.
  • Jerome Bettis ran for 10,571 yards in 78 touchdowns in 10 more seasons with the Steelers.

As Steelers Digest editor Bob Labriola explains, “Nobody from the Steelers was indicted for robbery that day, and the statute of limitations since has expired.”

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Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame Induction Enshrines Face of Steelers Franchise

21  Pittsburgh Steelers have entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame induction comes 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.

Jerome Bettis, Bus Stops, Super Bowl XL, Lombardi

Jerome Bettis, the Face of the Steelers Franchise

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 end zone 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!)

Jerome Bettis Highlights, Hall of Fame, Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, Three Rivers Stadium, Steelers vs. Redskins, Steelers Super Bowl eras

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

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 failed. 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 for 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.

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.

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, '05 Steelers

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss

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.

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Steelers Nation’s Love for Jerome Bettis was Real

There was no questioning the love, respect and admiration those who knew Art Rooney had for the late founder of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who passed away in 1988.

In fact, the legendary Mean Joe Greene has stated more than once that winning the franchise’s first Super Bowl following the 1974 season and doing it for his thoughtful and affectionate 73 year old boss, a man who had literally suffered through decades of losing, was “real.” Obviously, this sentiment was shared by most of Greene’s teammates, including linebacker and team captain Andy Russell, who, during the post-game celebration in the team’s locker room, made a last second decision to give the game ball to Mr. Rooney, instead of Greene, the team’s ferocious defensive tackle.

Nobody in that locker room thought twice about Russell’s actions, because it was the right thing and, again, it was “real.”

  • Stuff like that in sports is priceless, and it’s rare to find.

Such was the love for now Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis during his 10 seasons toting the rock in Pittsburgh.

Bettis came to the Steelers in 1996, with a bit of a reputation as a malcontent and selfish player from his days with the Rams. But that reputation was quickly washed away upon No. 36’s arrival, and he soon became one of the leaders in the locker room and one of the most beloved players the City of Pittsburgh has ever seen.

  • There was just something special about Bettis scoring a touchdown.

Maybe it was his charismatic demeanor, or the way he seemed to love sticking up for his teammates by taking on defenders. But whenever Bettis reached pay-dirt either by bowling over defenders or carrying them with him, Yours truly would just “mark out,” as they say in the wrestling business, and it just felt more thrilling and satisfying than when any other Steeler did the same.

  • Obviously, Bettis had the collective ear of his teammates, who seemed to want to play well and win as much for him as for themselves.

In his now famous interview with reporters the day after the Steelers disappointing home loss to New England in the 2004 AFC Championship game, an emotional Hines Ward, said of Bettis, “I wanted to win more for him than anything. He deserves to be a champion.” 

Ward was one of several teammates who stood in the team’s locker room at Heinz Field moments earlier and listened to Bettis thank his teammates for the “memories.”

  • It was unclear at that point if Bettis would return for another season.

Thankfully, he did. This is just speculation, of course, but it’s doubtful the 2005 Steelers would have had that “extra something” to get them over the hump and to Detroit for Super Bowl XL, if Bettis wasn’t around to act as a lightning rod of inspiration. Pittsburgh was 7-5 and on the outside looking in at the playoffs, with only four games left. But there was that “drive” to take the Bus to Detroit.

  • Bettis is a Detroit native, and his teammates wanted desperately to get him “back home” for the Super Bowl.

Bettis wasn’t a starter in ’05, and he only rushed for 368 yards as a back-up to Willie Parker. But he was still one of the leaders of the team, and he had the collective ear of those around him.

The love for Bettis was so real and so genuine, Joey Porter even arranged for The Bus to run out of the tunnel all by himself during the team introductions in Super Bowl XL.

The Steelers winning their first Super Bowl in 26 seasons (a 21-10 victory over Seattle) was special enough, but when you add in the story of Bettis, the love he had from his teammates, and the love the City of Pittsburgh had for him? It turned a great and memorable campaign into a magical one.

Much like with the love and respect his players have for former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, the affection Bettis’s teammates had for him is a rare commodity in today’s professional sports world.

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15 Jerome Bettis Highlights that Prove The Bus Belongs in the HOF

15 Jerome Bettis highlights taken from throughout the legendary Steelers running back’s career show just why the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee was right to include the Bus in the 2015 Hall of Fame Class. That year 3 candidates with strong ties to the Pittsburgh Steelers were finalists and they are Kevin Greene, Tony Dungy and of course Jerome Bettis.

  • While most of Steelers Nation would be perfectly happy to see Dungy and Greene elected, Bettis is the one we cared about.

The committee gave Steelers Nation their wish, and these 15 Jerome Bettis highlights taken from throughout his career, that show just why Bettis is such a worthy Hall of Famer. Either click the links below or scroll down to relive 15 top highlights from Jerome Bettis’s career.

Jerome Bettis, Brian Urlacher, Steelers vs. Bears, Bettis vs. Urlacher,

Jerome Bettis shows Brian Urlacher who is boss

I. Bettis Best Game Ever

12/12/93, Los Angeles Rams 23, New Orleans Saints 20
Sometimes we easily forget Jerome Bettis wasn’t always a Pittsburgh Steeler after so long as “The face of the franchise.” But it is true. The Los Angeles Rams selected Jerome Bettis with the 10th overall pick in the 1993 NFL Draft.

Bettis took the league by storm, rushing for 1,429 yards as a rookie, and his best game of the season came vs. New Orleans, when he banged out 212 yards on 28 carries, for one touchdown. That was his highest single game rushing total ever, and it included his longest run at 71.

Although Bettis would never have a better day statistically, he did have bigger games — all for the Black and Gold.

II. Bettis First 100 Yard Game for Steelers

9/8/96, Pittsburgh Steelers 31, Baltimore Ravens 17
Jerome Bettis’ first game for the Steelers didn’t go so well, as Pittsburgh suffered a disastrous defeat in Jacksonville at the hands of the Jaguars with injuries decimating the linebacking crops, with Bettis 57 yard effort an under story.

He made good in week 2 the first Steelers-Ravens match up ever. Bettis rushed for 116 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries – and he didn’t even start. Erric Pegram had that honor, who turned in a respectable 60 yard on 11 carry performance

III. Rams Rue Decision to Run Bettis Out of Town

11/3/96, Pittsburgh Steelers 42, St. Louis Rams 6
Jerome Bettis was the only positive for the 4-12 1993 Rams. Chuck Knox aka “ground Chuck” got the ax the team hired Rich Brooks and moved to St. Louis. For whatever reason Bettis and Brooks didn’t work well together. Bettis production dropped by 400 yards in 1994 and to 637 yards in 1995.

  • Dick Vermeil’s first decision was to pick Lawrence Philips in the 1996 draft.

That made Bettis expendable. St. Louis traded him to Pittsburgh for what was essentially a 2nd round pick.

By the time the Steelers played the Rams at mid-season, it was already clear that the trade might have been one of Tom Donahoe’s best ever personnel decisions. Bettis already had six 100 yard games and laid claim to the moniker, “The Bus.”

Bettis exploded vs. the Rams, scoring the first two touchdowns and racking up 100 yards before the half, as The Bus steamrolled the Rams to the tune of 129 yards rushing on 19 carries for a 6.8 yard average. For the record Lawrence Philips had six yards on 5 carries….

IV. Bettis Best Game with the Steelers

10/12/97, Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Indianapolis Colts 22
It was a strange night for the Steelers. Lindy Infante’s Colts arrived at Three Rivers Stadium nursing an 0-5 record and quickly took 10-0 lead before Norm Johnson got the Steelers on the board and then Bettis tied it up early in the second half.

Carnell Lake returned a fumble 83 yards for a touchdown, but the Colts would threaten the entire game, as the Steelers lost Kordell Stewart and Charles Johnson to injury. Things got so bad that reserve receiver Mike Adams had to play the entire second half on a torn ACL.

The Steelers did what they worked for them best in that day and age – they rode The Bus. Bettis racked up 164 yards, his highest total as a Steeler, on 30 carries including one touchdown.

V. Bettis Rides Over Broncos

12/7/97 Steelers 35, Denver Broncos 24
This late season show down would and should be remembered for many things.

But credit Jerome Bettis as the game’s unsung hero. The fireworks took place in the first half, which ended in a 21-21 tie. The second half started with the Broncos getting a field goal and the lead.

  • Then Bettis took over.

He pounded Denver into submission, including 24 yard run where he literally dragged defenders for a good 7 or 8 yards after contact. When all was said and done, The Bus had run for 24 yards on 125 carries.

VI. Bettis Leads By Example

12/28/98 Jacksonville Jaguars 21, Pittsburgh Steelers 3
The Pittsburgh Steelers started 1998 unevenly, played a few strong games in the middle, and then pathetically petered out down the stretch, losing their final five games as Kordell Stewart looked lost.

When the season finale vs. Jacksonville arrived, the Jaguars started their back up and the only thing at stake was Bill Cowher’s chance to avoid his first losing season. He didn’t.

  • The harsh reality is that many of Cowher’s players quit on him.

But one player shown out. He not only gave it his all, he played with power and he delivered results. That player was number 36, Jerome Bettis who ran for 139 yards and caught 4 balls for 24 yards – and he did it on a bum knee, having announced to ABC’s sideline reporter that he’d scheduled surgery for the following morning.

Stepping up in games like these were one reason why Bettis owned the Steelers locker room.

VII. The Bus Rides Well in the Snow

12/26/99 Pittsburgh Steelers 30, Carolina Panthers 20
The Steelers 1999 season ended much like the 1998 season did – with a season-ending melt down. With one exception.

George Seifert’s Carolina Panthers came to Three Rivers Stadium with a 7-7 record while the Pittsburgh Steelers were reeling on a six game losing streak.

  • The Steelers looked like easy pickings.

Early on the Steelers looked lackluster, but then it started to snow. Snow blanked the Astroturf at Three Rivers Stadium, and it left the Panthers flat footed. The Bus took off, rushing for 137 yards and inspiring the team to victory. The Panthers made a run late in the game as they fought to within 3 late in the third quarter. But Bettis did what he always did – iced the game away with a dominating 4th quarter that saw him barrel into the end zone with 3:47 remaining to put the game away.

VIII. Bettis Helps Set Steelers Tone for ‘00’s

10/1/00, Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Jaguars 13
The Steelers followed their 1999 meltdown by opening the 2000 season by going 0-3, including a heart breaker at the hand of Steve McNair, as the pundits pooled their money on predictions on when Dan Rooney would fire Bill Cowher.

Bill Cowher had other ideas. He didn’t care that he’d started 0-3. He didn’t care that the Jacksonville Jaguars were Super Bowl contenders. He didn’t care that Jacksonville had won 3 straight vs. Pittsburgh. He didn’t care that Kent Graham, his starting quarterback, had been injured late in practice on Friday.

  • He didn’t care because Bill Cowher preached that players should expect to win on Sunday.

In this game, names like Joey Porter, Aaron Smith and Desha Townsend announced their presence to Steelers Nation and as the Steelers defense dominated. But on a day where Kordell Stewart only managed 132 yards passing, Jerome Bettis carried the Steelers offense. He didn’t break 100 yards, but he did run for 97 and scored two touchdowns. The victory in Jacksonville set the tone for the Steelers for a decade and, once again, the Steelers rode the Bus.

IX. Bus Shines in Old Fashioned Steelers Raiders Showdown

12/3/00, Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Oakland Raiders 20
This probably gets left off of many other worthy Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame games lists, but it makes it here because this game simply doesn’t get its due. The twin Steelers-Cowboys Super Bowls defined pro football excellence in the 70’s, but had they not then the dozen epic matchups the Steelers and Raiders fought between 1970 to 1980 would have.

Due to scheduling irregularities, the Raiders would not play in Pittsburgh for 20 years. That changed in December 2000, and the matchup was worthy of the best of Steelers-Raiders lore. The Steelers had clawed their way out of an 0-3 start back to 6-6 while the Raiders boasted a 10-2 record.

Kordell Stewart, who’d reclaimed the starting quarterback role, was injured early in the game, and his replacement Kent Graham looked clueless, throwing a pick six and getting planted on the turf as the Raiders jumped to a 17-7 lead.

The Steelers comeback left Pittsburgh with some priceless memories:

  • Kordell Stewart’s miraculous recovery, including his 17 yard touchdown run
  • Mark Bruener marshaling pure will power to win a goal line dog fight to spark the Steelers rally
  • Jon Gruden pleading for a 5th down after the Steelers defense stopped him cold on 4th down with 7 seconds left.

But what many forget, is that amidst all the chaos Jerome Bettis “quietly” kept the offense moving for by rushing for 128 yards. That’s just what Hall of Famers do.

X. Bus Rolls Over Redskins in Three Rivers Stadium Finale

12/16/00, Pittsburgh Steelers 24, Redskins 3
In 2000 Daniel Snyder bought his first off season Lombardi. For many fans and press alike, Snyder’s signing of Deon Sanders in June made the delivery of the Redskins 4th Super Bowl trophy a mere formality. The schedule had been published by then, and few Redskins fans even gave a second thought to the fact that they’d have to play the Steelers in the final game a Three Rivers Stadium.

  • A far different off season narrative had been penned for Jerome Bettis.

Declining production in 1998 and 1999 led many, inside and outside Pittsburgh, to assume Bettis best days were behind him.

Jerome Bettis Highlights, Hall of Fame, Jerome Bettis, Franco Harris, Three Rivers Stadium, Steelers vs. Redskins, Steelers Super Bowl eras

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Yet, when the Three Rivers Stadium finale arrived, it was Jerome Bettis, and not any of Daniel Snyder’s high-priced free agents, who dominated the game. Bettis charged up and down the middle of the Redskins defense for 104 yards on 25 carries, and added another grab for 25. Perhaps the biggest highlight came when Deon Sanders backed away rather than try to tackle Bettis.

Daniel Snyder grew so incensed that he tried to order Myron Cope to alter his color commentary, to which Cope retorted,

  • If that boy billionaire thinks he can shut me up, then he can take his head and stick it in a bucket of paint!

Suffice to say, all of Snyder’s money could neither silence the voice of Steelers Nation, nor change the fact that The Bus had plenty of tread left on his tires.

XI. Bettis Leads the Way as Steelers Inaugurate Heinz Field with a Win

10/7/01 Pittsburgh Steelers 16, Cincinnati Bengals 7
The Pittsburgh Steelers were supposed to open Heinz Field against the Cleveland Browns. But September 11th changed everything.

 

Instead, the Steelers would open at home nearly a month later, and this time vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. Bettis again led the way for the Steelers offense, piling up 153 yards on 25 carries, and giving the Steelers their first win in their new home.

XII. Bus Comes Off Bench to Help Steelers Spoil Philly’s Perfect Record

11/7/04, Pittsburgh Steelers 27, Philadelphia Eagles 3
Thanks to their 6-10 2003 season, the Steelers entered 2004 as an after thought –which is exactly what made this generation of Pittsburgh Steelers dangerous. On the arm of a rookie quarterback named Ben Roethlisberger and the newly added Duce Staley, reached week 8 with a 6-1 record.

Staley had run well in the season’s first seven games, but got injured in the Steelers upset of the Patriots. Prior to the season, Jerome Bettis had accepted a pay cut and was seen by many as an insurance policy at best or a scholarship year at worst.

Bettis proved his critics wrong as he ran for 133 yards and helped the Steelers spoil the Eagles 7-0 record.

XIII. Bus, Staley Tag Team to Bludgeon Jets in Playoffs

1/15/05, Pittsburgh Steelers 20, New York Jets 20
Steel Curtain Rising has talked about this playoff victory vs. the Jets many times before and will again. If you’re looking for a “Three yards and a cloud of dust” example of post season Steelers smash mouth football then you’d be hard pressed to find one without looking to the 70’s.

Jerome Bettis started this game, but had to take himself out due to injury. Staley came in and continued to pound the Jets. Then he got hurt and Bettis had to return.

  • It was a sight to behold – two Steelers big backs alternating to pummel an opponent into submission.

The Steelers needed every bit of it, as Ben Roethlisberger began playing like a rookie, and the Jets mounted a stiff challenge. At the end of the day, Bettis the 32 year old war horse, ran for 101 yards and a touchdown.

XIV. Urlacher, Bears Get Hit by The Bus

12/11/05, Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Chicago Bears 9
Despite finishing the 2004 a hair under 1,000 yards, even veteran commentators such as Mike Prisuta declared that Bettis presence on the roster was more important to Bettis than the team itself.

  • Games like this one prove him wrong.

The Steelers were at 7-5 and coming off a 3 game losing streak. Bill Cowher took the unusual step of order a full pads practice. He told the team they were Christopher Columbus uncharted journey. And with the 9-3 Bears coming to town, he turned to his gamers.

The record will note that Willie Parker got 21 carries as opposed to Bettis 17, but the Bus carried the day for the Steelers rushing for 101 yards, including dominating Brian Urlacher in one incredible 1-1 open field confrontation.

The Chicago game marked Bettis final 100 yard effort. But The Bus made it count.

XV. Super Bowl XL – The Bus Stops Here

2/5/06, Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Seattle Seahawks 10
When the Steelers came up short in the 2004 AFC Championship vs. New England, Hine Ward was moved to tears because he thought it would deny Bettis his shot at a championship. Ben Roethlisberger promised him, “I’ll get you back next year.” Bettis returned in 2005 with a singular goal – parking The Bus in Super Bowl XL in a game played in his home town Detroit.

  • Bettis didn’t break 100 yards. He didn’t score a touchdown. He didn’t rip off a record breaking run.

Bettis finger print was all over the field, a fact made evident when Joey Porter pulled a surprise, and allowed Bettis to emerge as the lone Steeler during introductions.

Bettis leadership and inspiration is what drove the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers on their improbable 8 game season-closing winning streak and ultimately to One for the Thumb.

15 MORE Reasons for Jerome Bettis to be in the Hall of Fame

The tough thing about writing an article like this, aside from finding the time, is limiting this list to 15 worthy Jerome Bettis Hall of Fame Games. Many other candidates scream for inclusion.

  • Forget about the numbers and statistics.

Hall of Fame worthiness comes from defining what it means to be excellent at your position. When you look at a sampling of his work, who can argue that Jerome Bettis failed to accomplish that? In 13 years as an NFL running back, from his rookie season to his final season, Bettis dominated games.

Jerome Bettis belongs in the Hall of Fame. Period.

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