Jerome & Earl
Too Similar? Support Roles Key To Bettis' Longevity
by Stephen Flinn
The Pittsburgh Steelers have been known for at least the last 25 years as a football team with a good running game. Today is no different. Under Head Coach Bill Cowher, now in his seventh season in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have compiled a 40-6 record when their running back rushes for at least 100 yards. Leading the way today, of course, is RB Jerome Bettis.
After five complete seasons in the NFL, Bettis had rushed for 6,187 yards on a whopping 1,491 carries. Nicknamed "The Bus", the 26 year-old Notre Dame product has earned his nickname courtesy of a rigorous north-south running style that has left more than one would-be defender wondering how he ever landed on Silly Street.
Although Bettis' first half-decade of statistics are impressive, one can't help but wonder about his longevity, given his sell-out-on-every-play mentality. Although appreciated by fans, teammates, coaches and the front office alike, it's entirely possible that his career may be shortened should his current style continue - unless he gets some help.
Which brings us to Earl Campbell, who retired at age 30. Big backs who gain yardage by running over people have a tendency to wear out quicker due to the punishment their bodies take game after game. Campbell lasted eight seasons and rushed for 9,407 yards, good for 13th place on the all-time NFL rushing list. Taking each back's average yearly rushing totals, Bettis is ahead of Campbell. Based on his first five seasons, Bettis' rushing stats project to 9,899 over eight seasons, or 492 more than Earl.
If you project Bettis' stats over five seasons to those of Campbell in the passing game, Bettis is in for even more punishment than Campbell, who had 121 career receptions. Bettis is on pace to catch 179 balls. Considering these numbers and that you don't get nicknamed after a multi-axeled motor vehicle for nothing, forward-thinking Steeler management has taken steps to lighten Bettis' load.
The Campbell comparison is not lost on the 5-11, 250 lb. Bettis. "I can understand why people have compared me to Earl Campbell since we're both big backs who basically run with the same style," Bettis said. "I feel honored to be compared to a Hall of Fame running back like Earl and I hope I can compare with his career when I'm done playing football as well."
Bettis arrived in Pittsburgh via a trade with St. Louis Rams during the 1996 Draft in exchange for the Steelers' second-round pick. He was actually called "The Battering Ram" when he was with the Rams. The first time Steeler play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove called Bettis "The Bus" on the air, Myron Cope asked him if he made that up, because he had never heard Bettis called The Bus before. When Hillgrove ran into a cousin of Bettis' in Japan, he told Bill that Jerome went by the nickname "The Bus" while at Notre Dame. Things haven't been the same since he arrived in 1996.
Bettis has gained more yards than any other Steeler running back in their first two years since arriving in town. Through four games this season, Bettis has run for more than 3,450 yards as a Steeler. The club finished second in the NFL in rushing in 1996 and first in rushing last year. If he gains about twelve-hundred yards this season, he will pass John Henry Johnson and move into second place behind Hall of Fame running back Franco Harris (11,950). Those figures come at a price.
Steelers' Director of Player Personnel, Tom Donahoe, knows what all this can mean in the long term. While appearing as a guest on The Pittsburgh Sports Report this past summer on SportsTalk 1250 WTAE, Donahoe readily admitted that the one player he was most surprised remained on the NFL Draft board as the day wore on was Utah running back, Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala. When the time drew nigh, Donahoe pulled the trigger and selected a mini-bus. Actually, unknown to most Steeler fans, Donahoe had already started stockpiling power running backs by signing a free agent in February. A highly productive collegiate runner who played sparingly with Atlanta in 1996 and not at all last season. A guy named Richard Huntley.
Huntley, a 5-11, 224 lb. back from Winston-Salem State, gives the Steelers a change of pace in their offense since the crafty runner uses speed and agility rather than just brute strength to gain yardage.
"Whenever I need a breather, I feel comfortable coming out knowing that Huntley can come in and pick up some slack," Bettis said. "Whenever I had that long run against Chicago [in Week Two], I came out and thought nothing of it. Huntley was automatically sent in and we just kept going."
"I know Jerome's the man here and I just do what the coaches ask me to do, whether its coming in at times for Jerome or playing special teams," Huntley said. "I like the system here because you know Pittsburgh's going to run the ball and that's what I do best."
Huntley also appreciates the open lines of communication between the Steelers' staff and their players. "If I have a suggestion or an idea, I feel I can go to the coaches and discuss it with them," Huntley said. "Even though they may not use it, I feel at least my opinion counts for something here and that I will be heard, and I did not have that luxury in Atlanta."
When the Steelers really want to attack a tired defense, they summon Fuamatu-Ma'afala. He also lines up in the backfield to help protect starting quarterback Kordell Stewart when he uses the shotgun snap and can slant out to catch a screen pass if needed.
"When 'Fu' lines up in the backfield on the shotgun, it's like having two sidecars back there because of his size," color commentator Myron Cope noted.
The Steelers chose the 5-11, 252 lb. rookie in the sixth round from the University of Utah. He was born in 1977, so he has no recollection of the Steeler Super Bowl Dynasty, or much about Campbell for that matter, but he did know recent Steeler history based on Bettis running the football.
"I love being with the Steelers," Fu said. "I knew coming in that it was a running offense here with Jerome leading the way and I thought I had a shot at fitting in, so I'm glad it has worked out so far." He's also shown the team spirit critical to being a Steeler - playing on special teams, something he didn't do in college. It's an area where Huntley has been invaluable.
"I feel I can contribute here in many ways and I'll do whatever the team needs me to do," Chris said. "Coming here has been a good experience for me and I want to play football as long as I can."
Despite two sub-par outings in his first four games, Bettis ranks third among AFC rushers. He still gets the bulk of the work, he also is finding the key to a longer career. "Even though I'm a big man, I try not to give a tackler too big of a target to hit," Bettis said. "It may not seem that way sometimes, but I try to avoid the crushing blow by being elusive, and still not be afraid to ram the defender at the same time."
Considering that the '97 Steelers' greatest fortune was that Bettis, for whom there was no replacement, did not go down with an injury, club brass must be happy with that attitude. And at seeing Fu score the only Pittsburgh TD against Seattle in Week Four. They may have been looking at the future, but also at one of the keys to not revisiting the past: avoiding The Bus from becoming The Earl.
Too soon, that is.
Stephen Flinn is a PSR staff writer.