With all due respect, [...] for most of his [Jerome Bettis] career he played in an offense without a quarterback you could name.
-Bill Cowher (via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
As unpleasant as Bill Cowher’s comments regarding Pittsburgh’s quarterbacks during most of his tenure appeared to be, one cannot deny that there is plenty of truth behind them.
In fact, the cavalcade of mediocre signal-callers who suited up for the Steelers during Jerome Bettis’ most productive years (1996-2001) with the team illustrate the impressiveness of what the running back did during that span.
1996-2001: The Wheels on the Bus…
As sad as it is to type, Jim Miller’s audition did not even last one game. The third-year quarterback was benched for Mike Tomczak during Pittsburgh’s 1996 opening day loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tomczak started the team’s final 15 games that fall.
With a career backup under center (2,767 passing yards, 55.4% completions, 15:17 TD to INT ratio), the offense was essentially forced to grind it out with their best offensive weapon which was Bettis. The recently acquired running back racked up then-career highs in carries (320), yards (1,431) and rushing touchdowns (11), and was the driving force behind the Steelers’ run to an AFC Central championship.
The following season, Pittsburgh began the tumultuous Kordell Stewart Experiment. Although the third-year signal-caller enjoyed a magical 1997 campaign, he was far from an accomplished passer.
Stewart could just as easily miss a wide-open receiver by five yards or take a costly sack which drove the team out of field goal range. Overall, Stewart’s 3,020 passing yards and 21 touchdowns were overshadowed by a poor completion percentage (53.6%) and a high interception total (17).
Once again the team rode Bettis to the postseason and within a game of Super Bowl XXXII. Overall, Bettis set a career-highs in rushing yards (1,665) and carries (375), and enjoyed plenty of success despite the fact that he had boxes consistently stacked to stop him that fall.
Even as Stewart struggled and guys like Tomczak and Kent Graham shuttled in and out of the lineup over the next three seasons (1998-2000), Bettis continued to produce as his team’s best offensive weapon while opposing teams keyed on him on a weekly basis.
The Bus ran for a combined 3,617 yards and 18 touchdowns during that three year stretch, and still looked like he had another season or two of productivity left in his tank.
Bettis appeared to be off to the best start of his career during the 2001 season, and it looked like the Steelers would be primed for a Super Bowl berth. Stewart was in the midst of a Pro Bowl season, and Bettis racked up 1,072 rushing yards in Pittsburgh’s first 11 games before he was sidelined for the remainder of the regular season with an injury.
In 2002, the 30-year-old’s days as a full-time running back were behind him. The Bus dealt with injuries, a transition to a more pass-happy offense with Tommy Maddox as the quarterback and was relegated to more of a battering ram-only role. Nevertheless, what Bettis accomplished during his first six seasons in Pittsburgh is truly remarkable.
With Miller, Tomczak, Stewart and Graham starting all 89 of the games Bettis played in from 1996-2001, The Bus totaled 7,785 rushing yards, 40 rushing touchdowns, 95 catches and two touchdown receptions. For those of you playing at home, Bettis averaged 1,297 rushing yards per season over that span.
While Cowher obviously did not mean to disrespect the quarterbacks, his quote illustrates one extremely important thing:
Jerome Bettis performed at a Hall of Fame level during the prime of his career.