Labriola On

Labriola on Bettis, '97, Boom vs. Curtain

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Ready or not, here it comes:*

  • When the Pro Football Hall of Fame Board of Selectors meets annually on the day before the Super Bowl, the procedure calls for the member from the city in which each finalist played the bulk of his career to stand before the group and makes a presentation for that individual player/coach/contributor.
  • That meant it was Ed Bouchette from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette who made the presentation about Jerome Bettis. This was the fifth time Bouchette had to make the case for Bettis, a player he passionately believed deserved to be elected into the Hall, by the way, and after a period of time there is a tendency to run out of new material.
  • In an unrelated development, Teresa Varley of Steelers.com was writing a series of stories in which she contacted a number of Hall of Famers and asked them about the legitimacy of Bettis' candidacy. Someone already in the Hall of Fame isn't going to rip a guy who's up for election, but there were a couple of things in Varley's stories that had a real impact.
  • One was a comment by Derrick Brooks, Hall of Fame Class of 2014, an outside linebacker with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers whose career (1995-2008) intersected with Bettis' (1993-2005) and actually had them on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage in 1998, 2001, and 2002. In those three games, all played in Tampa, the Steelers were 2-1 and Bettis had 272 yards on 60 carries (4.5 average) and a touchdown against what were very good Buccaneers defenses from that era.
  • Said Brooks to Varley, "You know, I must admit, yes, there were a few collisions and let's just say I wasn't on the end I wanted to be. I didn't lose many battles one-on-one in my career. But in my competition, my battles with Jerome, I didn't win as many as I wanted to. His application is approved."
  • Bouchette would close this presentation with what running back Curtis Martin, Hall of Fame Class of 2012, told Varley when she asked him what he would tell the voters about Bettis if given the chance. Bouchette read aloud what Martin had said.
  • "Me being a running back, one of the things I would try to explain to them is how difficult it is to be a consistent running back from year to year," said Martin. "How difficult it is to be dependable year to year. How difficult at running back it is to stay healthy. The work that you have to do just to stay on the field. The injuries you have to play with. You take more hits than just about anyone on the field. For Jerome's full body of work, for him to do what he has done, for him to do it the way that he did. For him to be somewhat of a pioneer in my opinion, as far as a big guy who moved the way that he did. I don't know that we really have ever seen it. The only person that I can think of that is even close to Jerome is Earl Campbell. I would tell them to look at his full body of work, where he is right now, at No. 6 on the NFL's all-time rushing list. I don't know how he is not in the Hall of Fame. I thought the guy would be in the Hall of Fame before I was."
  • Having Bettis elected into the Hall of Fame on Sunday and then watching Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell's brain cramp on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 26 seconds left before trophy hoisting time brought back memories of the 1997 season. The one where the Steelers lost to the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game at Three Rivers Stadium. The one sending the Broncos to the first of those back-to-back Super Bowl championships that put the exclamation point on John Elway's career.
  • On Dec. 7, 1997, the Steelers had hosted the Broncos in the regular season and absolutely punished them physically. By the end of that game, Denver's defensive players had NO INTEREST in tackling Jerome Bettis, who finished the afternoon with 125 yards rushing and a 5.2 average on the way to a 35-24 win for the Steelers in which the team finished with 186 yards on the ground.
  • Bettis finished that regular season with 1,665 yards rushing, and he was healthy for the playoffs, and so in the Divisional Round when the Steelers defeated the Patriots and the Broncos upset the Chiefs in Kansas City, the AFC Championship Game was to be played in Pittsburgh for the third time in the last four seasons.
  • Late in the second quarter of that Championship game, the Steelers held a 14-10 lead and Bettis already had scored a touchdown – he already had 49 yards on 10 carries (4.9 average) – and their offense was facing a second-and-2 from the Denver 35-yard line. There was about 4:45 remaining in the first half, and instead of giving it to Bettis to eat up time while continuing to matriculate the ball down the field and keep John Elway on the sideline, offensive coordinator Chan Gailey called a pass. Kordell Stewart's throw for Yancey Thigpen was intercepted in the end zone for a touchback.
  • Elway took that turnover, completed 4-for-4 for 57 yards and a touchdown on the ensuing possession, and the Broncos took a 17-14 lead. Bettis didn't touch the ball on the series following the kickoff, and the Steelers punted it back to Denver having used only 52 seconds and without forcing the Broncos to call their final timeout.
  • Four plays later the ball was in the end zone again, this time it was Elway to Ed McCaffrey for a touchdown with 13 seconds left in the the second quarter that upped the Broncos lead to 24-14 at halftime and served to put the Steelers in catch-up mode throughout the second half.
  • That sequence was what turned the second half into Denver's defense vs. Stewart's passing, instead of Denver's defense vs. Bettis' running. That sequence was what sent the Broncos to Super Bowl XXXII.
  • Back to the present. The outcome of Super Bowl XLIX left Bill Belichick and Tom Brady tied with Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw as the only coach-quarterback combos with four Lombardi trophies, but it also ended any argument about the Seahawks defense dominating back-to-back Super Bowls the way the Steel Curtain did in Super Bowls IX and X.
  • As a refresher, the Steelers defense allowed 17 rushing yards and no offensive touchdowns while recording five takeaways in Super Bowl IX. The following season, it sacked Hall of Famer Roger Staubach seven times and intercepted him three times while allowing only two offensive touchdowns, one in the final 1:48 when the Steelers had a two-score lead.
  • The Seahawks defense gave up two offensive touchdowns in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XLIX.
  • Darrell Bevell took it from there and proved the old adage: "You always have a chance, because the other team has coaches, too."
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