2002 and 2003 proved to be a couple of down seasons for Jerome Bettis.
The five-time Pro Bowl performer not only lost his starting job to Amos Zereoue in 2002, Bettis averaged a paltry 3.3 yards per carry the following season while the Steelers sagged to 6-10. At 32 years old, Bettis appeared to be a short-yardage only running back by the time the 2004 campaign started.
As sad as it was to see the once-great running back relegated to fewer and fewer carries, Bettis relished his role as the team’s short-yardage battering ram behind the newly acquired Duce Staley in 2004. Although his yards per carry number appeared pathetic on paper (2.48, 52 carries for 129 yards), Bettis still tallied eight rushing touchdowns during Pittsburgh’s first seven games.
Bettis’ stint as a goal line-only back in 2004 ended when Staley injured his hamstring during Pittsburgh’s monumental win over the New England Patriots. At that point, the Steelers were 6-1, sat atop the AFC and had just defeated a team that had won their previous 18 games. With Staley on the bench, Pittsburgh needed to call upon Bettis to kick-start the running game when their fantastic rookie quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, was not going to the air or making plays with his legs.
To his credit, the crafty veteran delivered like a true champion.
The following week, the Steelers defeated the then-undefeated (7-0) Philadelphia Eagles due in large part to Bettis’ 149 rushing yards. The former Golden Domer did not stop after his impressive showing against the eventual NFC champions. In fact, Bettis ran for 100+ yards in five of Pittsburgh’s next seven games, scored five touchdowns on the ground and even threw for a touchdown against the New York Jets.
Despite the fact that Bettis sat out Pittsburgh’s final regular season game, he finished the 2004 campaign with an impressive 941 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns. Best of all, Bettis made what was the final Pro Bowl of his career for his efforts that fall.
Unfortunately for Bettis, he had to wait another season to finally taste Super Bowl glory.
Despite his strong showing (101 rushing yards and one touchdown) in an overtime win against the Jets in the AFC Divisional Playoff, Bettis and his teammates were unable to emerge victorious over the Patriots the following week at Heinz Field in the AFC Championship.
Sour end to the 2004 season aside, thinking about that year and the monumental role Bettis played for his team always brings a smile to my face. Not many people, if any, believed that ‘The Bus’ had any gas left in his metaphorical tank to be more than a short-yardage back at that particular juncture.
Did Bettis have more productive seasons with the Steelers and even with the Los Angeles Rams than he did back in 2004?
He absolutely did, and he combined to rush for over 3,000 yards in 1996 and 1997. However, 2004 will always remain a special season in my heart and the hearts of many in Steeler Nation. Bettis played a monumental role in the success of that 15-1 team, and I for one will always remember how the rejuvenated running back dug deep at 32 years of age and kept his team’s magical season on the right track.