Making a case (again) for Bettis' place in CantonBy Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Diana/Post-Gazette
Jerome Bettis finds his family in the crowd that fairytale evening in Detroit after Super Bowl XL.

What the Steelers need today is another Jerome Bettis, a big, durable runner who consistently produces yards, touchdowns and victories.

That's like saying the Dolphins could use another Dan Marino, the Giants another Lawrence Taylor, and the Lions another Barry Sanders. Those kinds of players come around once in a generation, and when they're gone, they're irreplaceable.

Bettis is a once-in-a-lifetime running back. No one in the NFL ever saw his likes before and none since. He is the only back who weighed more than 240 pounds and consistently produced, and he did it like few others. Bettis ran for 13,662 yards, fifth most in the history of the NFL when he retired after the 2005 season and sixth today. He played in 192 games over 13 seasons, topped 1,000 yards rushing eight times and did it against defenses that mostly knew when he was coming.

The Bus was not only the best heavyweight runner in NFL history, he ranks among the most productive. At sixth in league history, he is the only eligible back among the top 10 who is not yet in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This is his third year as a finalist with the next vote taking place Feb. 2 in New Orleans.

"The sixth-best running back in the NFL should be in the Hall of Fame," said Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert, who helped draft Barry Sanders when he worked for the Lions.

Added former teammate Hines Ward, "I don't know what more anyone can ask of a running back, especially his size. I don't know any running back as big as he is and to be sixth all-time speaks volumes for JB.", a respected website that often takes alternative looks at statistics, ranks Bettis as the best big back in NFL history. It uses 240 pounds as the cutoff for describing a big back (Bettis weighed between 250 and 265 during his career).

No back had half as many yards among the top 10 as Bettis. The website lists Jamal Lewis as No. 2. He rushed for 6,669 yards. To show how few there have been in the NFL, former Steelers back Bam Morris is No. 10.

What made Bettis different? Many attributes, including his Fred Astaire feet.

"For a big guy, he had unique feet," Colbert said. "He had the feet of a 5-10, 180-pound guy. He had tremendous feet for his size. And obviously, his ability, his toughness, his willpower."

Why so few big backs? They either wear down because they are such big targets and easily hit, or they succumb to injuries for that reason and because their weight eventually crushes their joints.

Bettis endured even though in his prime years, he never played for a quarterback who will join him in the Hall of Fame. Not even close. There was no quarterback to take the pressure off him, to push that safety back out of the box, not until Ben Roethlisberger in Bettis' final two seasons with the Steelers, 2004-05.

Here were the quarterbacks who mostly started when Bettis played for the Rams -- Jim Everett and Chris Miller -- and the Steelers -- Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart and Tommy Maddox before Roethlisberger's rookie season in 2004.

They did not go to the empty set on third-and-2 in those days, they went to the Bus, and everyone knew it was coming. Same on the goal line. It likely led to his career average of 3.9 yards per carry. It's hard to average 4.0 when you get the ball so many times at the opponent's 1 or 2. Yet, had he gained just 81 more yards rushing, his average would stand at 4.0.

A back like Bettis would be a godsend to the Steelers these days when their "franchise" back missed most of his rookie season with an injury and much of his fifth with two injuries. In his first eight seasons, Bettis missed three games. The most he missed in 13 seasons were five in 2001. In his 11th season, he played in all 16. In his 12th, he played in 15, rushing for 941 yards and 13 touchdowns even though Steelers coaches decided to open the season with Duce Staley as their starter until he was hurt midway through it.

Bettis made the Pro Bowl that year, doing so in his rookie season and in his 12th. However, there was more to Bettis than stats.

He played hurt when others would not have. On at least two occasions, Bettis played with what the Steelers listed as "ribs." Were they bruised or broken? Bettis said at the time he did not know; he would not let them X-ray them because he planned to play regardless. Another Steelers halfback at the time said that Bettis was crazy for playing with "broken" ribs. "I wouldn't," the other back said.

There also was no better leader of the Steelers. There has not been one player in 30 years that prompted the kind of public sobbing as did Ward after the Steelers lost the 2004 AFC championship because he thought it was the last game for Bettis.

But Bettis returned in 2005 -- taking his second deep pay cut to do so -- and inspired his team to win a Super Bowl. There is no other way to describe it. They won that one for Bettis, who provided the impetus when, at 7-5 and the Steelers needing to win their remaining four games just to make the playoffs as the sixth seed, he ran over Brian Urlacher and the Chicago Bears in the snow for the first one. Bettis did not start that game (Willie Parker started), but he ran for 100 yards in the second half and scored two touchdowns -- one most famously over Urlacher -- in a 21-9 victory.

It was the first of seven in a row that landed the Steelers in the Super Bowl in Detroit, Bettis' hometown. When the Steelers were introduced before that game in Ford Field as a team, linebacker Joey Porter held everyone else back to allow Bettis, unbeknownst to him, to run onto the field by himself. It remains one of the more emotional moments in franchise history.

In a recent interview, Bettis cited two things that he held most dear to him about his career, and his rushing stats weren't one of them.

"That when they called my name, I was there. I answered the bell every single time. The second thing is that I inspired my teammates. In this day and age, if you're a leader, you have to lead by example and men have to want to follow you," he said. "The hardest thing in the world is to be a leader of men. And for you to be able to improve someone's level of play because you're there, that's important. You don't see that all the time."

You don't see a Jerome Bettis all the time. In fact, he was one of a kind.

The vote

What: Pro Football Hall of Fame voting.

When: Feb. 2.

Where: New Orleans on the day before Super Bowl XLVII.

The skinny: A class for induction of four to six will be selected from among 17 finalists. Among those also on the list are Kevin Greene, Edward DeBartolo Jr., Andre Reed and Cris Carter. The class will be announced at 5:30 p.m. on an NFL Network special.

All-time NFL rushers

Player Yards

1. Emmitt Smith 18,355

2. Walter Payton 16,726

3. Barry Sanders 15,269

4. Curtis Martin 14,101

5. L. Tomlinson 13,684

6. Jerome Bettis 13,662

7. Eric Dickerson 13,259

8. Tony Dorsett 12,739

9. Jim Brown 12,312

10. Marshall Faulk 12,279

Note: Jerome Bettis is the only player on this list not in the Hall of Fame who is eligible