The Pittsburgh Steelers know all about what the Baltimore Ravens are trying to do this post-season. A legend on their team, Ray Lewis, has announced that he will be retiring at the end of the season and the team is rallying behind him to try and send him out on top. For the Steelers this scenario played out to perfection during the 2005-2006 season. The player was Jerome Bettis and the Steelers road “The Bus” all the way to Detroit and allowed him to finish his NFL career as a Super Bowl champion.
Many people may not remember, however, that Bettis almost lost his chance to play that final season in Pittsburgh. During training camp the Steelers were planning on Richard Huntley being the starting running back and they were excited about a second year running back by the name of Amos Zereoue. Not to mention they still had their new power back in Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala. Bettis was older and had a large salary cap number and if not for a knee injury he may have been on his way out of Pittsburgh.
“Man, did I do a nice job of acting,” Bettis wrote in the book “The Bus. My Life in and out of a Helmet”, co-authored by ESPN.com columnist Gene Wojciechowski. “The thing is, I wasn’t faking that I had an injury. I was just faking that the injury happened on that short-yardage play. I had to fool the coaches and the team’s medical department into thinking the injury had occurred on that play. Otherwise, the Steelers would have had their reason to cut me and my salary.”
Because the knee injury was deemed as happening during training camp the team was not allowed to cut Bettis and was forced to keep him on the roster. That season Bettis reclaimed his starting role and started all 16 games for the Steelers. He led the team in rushing once again with 1,341 yards and 8 touchdowns.
The same scenario almost happened again in 2005 and there was some speculation that Bettis almost lost his chance to play that final season in Pittsburgh. During the 2005 training camp the Steelers were planning on Duce Staley being the starting running back and they were excited about another second year running back this time by the name of Willie Parker. Not to mention they still had their third down running back in Veron Haynes. Bettis was old and struggling in training camp and if not for a foot injury he may have been on his way out of Pittsburgh for the second time.
An injury to Staley forced the Steelers to start the inexperienced Parker at running back, but that ended up paying off for the team. Parker totaled over 1,400 yards and scored 5 touchdowns on the ground and through the air during the 2005 season. Bettis became the short yardage and goal-line back and was the Steelers “closer” during his final season. 2005 was statistically Bettis’ worst season as he only totaled 368 yards, but he also added 9 touchdowns. Not to mention the 180 yards and 3 touchdowns he amassed during the Steelers playoff run that season.
After starting the season 7-5 the Steelers were on the wrong end of the AFC North division lead and were on the outside looking in at the AFC playoffs. They had to win out and get a little help along the way just to make the playoffs as the sixth seed and no NFL team had ever made the Super Bowl as the sixth seed.
Losers of three straight the Steelers faced a four game stretch of must-win games. That stretch of games started with arguably the best defense in the NFL coming to Pittsburgh, the Chicago Bears. With their final three games against the Vikings, Browns, and Lions Steelers fans knew the playoffs were in sight if they could just get past the Bears.
It was December 11th and the weather was perfect for smash mouth Steelers football. It was snowing heavily and the Steelers knew what they needed to do: pound the ball with their running backs. At halftime the Steelers were up 7-3 and the weather was getting worse by the minute. This was the perfect time to put Jerome Bettis into the game to close it out. Bettis ran the ball 16 times for 100 yards and two touchdowns in the second half alone to spark a Steelers victory. The second of his two touchdowns put the Steelers up 21-3 and ended any chance of a Chicago Bears’ comeback. That play also became the iconic start to the Steelers winning streak as Bettis plowed through four Bears players including All-Pro middle linebacker Brian Urlacher on his way to the end-zone.
The Steelers rattled off three straight games to finish the regular season and were set to face the AFC North division winners, the Cincinnati Bengals. In week 13 the Bengals had beaten the Steelers to take control of the game and while walking off the field wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh used a Terrible Towel to wipe off his cleats. Before the Steelers third game with the Bengals then-head coach Bill Cowher showed that clip to the Steelers in their locker room.
As Joey Porter said after the game “that struck a nerve with every guy in that room.” The Steelers fell down early to the Bengals 17-7, but scored 24 unanswered points to turn the grudge match into a blowout. The next week they would once again face Peyton Manning and the Super Bowl favorite-Indianapolis Colts who had embarrassed the Steelers 26-7 just eight weeks prior.
Late in the fourth quarter of that game the Steelers had a chance to put the game away. They were up by 11 points and Troy Polamalu intercepted a Manning pass across the middle. However, as he tried to stand to run with the ball his knee popped the ball out of his hands and he recovered it. To this day the call still makes no sense, but the refs overturned the interception call saying that since Polamalu lost control of the ball when standing back up. The Colts took their second chance to score a touchdown and two point conversion and moved within three of the Steelers.
The game appeared to be over once again when Joey Porter sacked Manning on consecutive plays to force the Colts into a turnover on downs. Pittsburgh took over with the ball on the Colts one yard line and decided to put their closer into the game to send the team to the AFC Championship. Bettis, who hadn’t fumbled all season, was about to close the game, but instead lost his first fumble of the 2005 season and if not for a miracle tackle by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger it may have been the last play of his NFL career.
As history stands, however, Roethlisberger made an amazing play now labeled as “The Tackle” and the Steelers went on to win the game when Mike Vanderjagt, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, missed a chance to tie the game.
The Steelers had won two road playoff games and were on their way to Denver with a chance to go to the Super Bowl in Bettis’ home town of Detroit. Bettis says that he decided to give it one more year because if the Steelers had made the Super Bowl in his home town and he wasn’t on the team he wouldn’t have been able to live with himself. There was also the promise that a now second year quarterback had made to him after the team lost in the AFC Championship a year before: “if you come back I’ll get you there.”
A week later Roethlisberger made good on his promise from a year before completing 21 of 29 passes for 275 yards and two touchdowns. The Steelers rolled over the Broncos 34-17 and were off to Detroit to send Jerome Bettis off into the sunset as an NFL champion.
The Steelers struggled overall in the Super Bowl. They were out-gained by the Seattle Seahawks and out-played in almost every facet of the game except for one: big plays. Willie Parker’s 75 yard touchdown run is still the longest run in Super Bowl history and Antwaan Randle El’s 43 yard pass out of the wide receiver reverse gave the Steelers two of the most exciting plays in Super Bowl history. Those two plays alone outscored the Seahawks 14-10 and the Steelers added a one-yard touchdown run by Ben Roethlisberger and won the game 21-10.
Jerome Bettis famously took the stage after the game, Lombardi trophy in hand, and pronounced that Super Bowl XL was “The Bus’ last stop.” However, Bettis like Ray Lewis, regardless of who wins Super Bowl 47, has one more stop to make in his NFL career and that stop is in Canton, Ohio.
The Steelers know what it is like to carry a team leader and icon out on top of the world because they did so with Bettis in 2005. Baltimore is looking to do the same with Lewis this season and many Steelers fans are rooting against him for reason on and off of the football field. Many Steelers players, however, understand what it takes to win a Super Bowl and some of them remember what it was like to be part of the team in 2005.
Charlie Batch posted on his facebook account the following comment in regards to Lewis and the 2012 Baltimore Ravens: “People are rooting against the Ravens, but I remember Super Bowl XL with Jerome, it was special, so I hope Ray gets his day too!”
Many fans may disagree with wanting the Ravens and Lewis to win, but no Steelers fan can deny that the 2005 season was very special and watching Bettis hold that trophy was a special moment for players, fans, coaches, and Steeler Nation as a whole. If Lewis gets the same opportunity, off-field issues, aside I wouldn’t be terribly upset about it. On the field he is one of the best to ever play the game and will go down with Manning, Tom Brady, Tony Gonzales and a few others as the legends of this time period.
Bettis retired as the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history and ranks sixth with 13,662 yards. Of the top 10 rushers in NFL history, Bettis is the only one not yet in the Hall of Fame who is eligible. His career stats are as follows (via Steelers.com): Bettis played in 192 games over 13 seasons, during which his 3,479 carries netted 13,662 yards and 91 touchdowns. He had eight 1,000-yard seasons. He never missed more than five games in any one season, and over the course of his first eight seasons he missed only three games total. He averaged 18.1 carries per game. He had five seasons in which he averaged over 20 carries a game and a sixth where he was at 19.9. Even though he has been retired going on seven years now, he still is sixth on the NFL’s all-time rushing list.
On February 2, 2013 the NFL will announce the Hall of Fame class of 2013 to be enshrined on August 3, 2013. That group will likely include Bettis and he will officially make his final, well deserved, stop as an NFL player in a place that immortalizes the legends on the game.