Once again, a Hall of Fame case for Jerome Bettis

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The man who traded for Jerome Bettis and those who coached him his entire career with the Steelers do not understand it. Why isn't he in the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

How has one of the most unique and productive runners in NFL history not yet been inducted?

He is the sixth-leading all-time rusher in a league where every other player in the top 14 is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame except two not yet eligible. He ran for 13,662 yards over 13 seasons, eclipsed 1,000 eight times and practically willed his team to a Super Bowl championship.

He did it all while suffering from asthma, a breathing disorder that can make walking up a small hill difficult. Bettis often could be seen sucking on an inhaler between offensive series.

On Saturday, Jerome Bettis, by far the best heavyweight back the NFL has ever seen and one of its great "closers," will carry those accomplishments and much more into his fourth chance to be elected to the Hall of Fame in Canton.

"One of the biggest qualities of Jerome was his durability," said Bill Cowher, his only head coach with the Steelers. "He didn't miss many games. His productivity speaks for itself. What he did over a period of time was short of amazing, amazing for the type of back that he was.

"When you look at power running backs and his running style and his ability week-in and week-out, year-in and year-out, it made him very special."

Tom Donahoe, then the Steelers director of football operations, made the trade with the St. Louis Rams that brought Bettis to the Steelers just before the start of the 1996 draft.

"He did it over such a long period of time," Donahoe said. "Everybody knew he was getting the ball and they still couldn't stop him. He had a lot of big games, a lot of yards, a lot of tough yards."

And longtime Steelers backs coach Dick Hoak, who coached Franco Harris and Bettis for their entire careers, said "he was a first-year Hall of Fame guy in my opinion."

Maybe those three are biased, but what Bettis did and what he meant to those Steelers teams from 1996 through his last game, Super Bowl XL in his hometown of Detroit 10 years later, was pretty much everything.

He led them on the field and off, he helped set a tone and a culture in their locker room that lasted for years. And for many of those years, Bettis was their offense. Other than playing his final two seasons in Ben Roethlisberger's first two seasons, none of his quarterbacks will ever knock on the doors of the Hall of Fame: Jim Everett, Chris Miller, T.J. Rubley and Chris Chandler with the Rams, and Mike Tomczak, Kordell Stewart, Kent Graham and Tommy Maddox with the Steelers.

No John Elway. No Terry Bradshaw. No Peyton Manning. Not even a Kurt Warner in the bunch.

"With all due respect," Cowher said, "for most of his career he played in an offense without a quarterback you could name."

For the most part, when opponents played the Steelers, they had one main goal: Stop Jerome Bettis. For the most part, they could not.

Said Cowher, "Whoever it was, any of our quarterbacks, when you played us, we were a running offense and what we accomplished with a running offense was pretty amazing. He gave us our identity. We ran what people knew we were going to run. We were a running football team. If you wanted to stop the Pittsburgh Steelers, you had to stop the run first."

Bill Cowher's teams had a phenomenal record when they led in games by more than 10 points -- 106-1-1.

"A lot of times, we gave it to him three times on every series in the fourth quarter," Cowher said. "He ate up the clock. My record of 106-1-1 with more than a 10-point lead was because of Jerome Bettis.

"In the latter part of his career, he was the short-yardage runner for us, a fourth-quarter runner. He ran when people knew we were running. And if you ever talk about closers in the game of football, he closed a game. He knew how to get a first down in the fourth quarter. He wore on people."

Cowher, Hoak and Donahoe all mentioned how defenders would be weary of tackling Bettis in the second halves of games.

"It was fun to watch games when people were just getting out of the way in the third quarter because they were tired of hitting him," Donahoe said.

"There were so many turn-down hits on him because of his style," Cowher said. "Yet I never saw Jerome Bettis get knocked backwards. He had a great feel for contact, a great feel and vision for holes and a great resilience to be there week-in and week-out.''

There have been backs who posted amazing rushing stats in the NFL for short periods of time, but many of them fizzled out because they did not have the staying power, because they could not overcome injuries or because all of those hits merely wore them down.

Bettis kept running, over the course of 13 seasons in the NFL. Some point to his career 3.9-yard average per carry as a negative (81 more yards would have given him a 4.0), but he was still picking up those third-and-2 first downs as he closed in on his 34th birthday. His latter-day runs dragged down his average, but he was a valuable commodity to the Steelers right up until the day he retired hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in his hometown.

He inspired the Steelers to that Super Bowl XL victory and during that run, he famously bowled through the great middle linebacker of the Chicago Bears, Brian Urlacher, for a touchdown in the snow.

In his first six seasons with the Steelers, Bettis ran for 7,785 yards, 40 touchdowns and a 4.1-yard average per carry. During the latter part of his career, he was used more sparingly as a short-yardage and goal-line back. Yet he continued to thrive. At age 32 in 2004, he took a back seat in the first half of the season to newcomer Duce Staley, although Cowher continued to insert Bettis into the game at the goal line and The Bus rarely failed him.

When Staley went down with an injury, Bettis took over in the second half of that season with a rookie quarterback at the helm in Roethlisberger. Bettis produced 877 yards on 213 carries over eight games, with six 100-yard games during that span.

Cowher did not play him in the final game of the season at Buffalo because the Steelers had already clinched the top playoff seed, keeping Bettis 59 yards short of his ninth 1,000-yard rushing season.

While only five backs produced more yards in their careers, no heavyweight back ever came close.

Bettis played most of his career at between 250 and 265 pounds. No back of 240 or more ever gained even half of his yardage. Big backs are big targets, but Bettis used his amazingly quick feet to avoid the kinds of big hits that knocked others from the game too early.

"A lot of people thought he was just a power runner," Hoak said. "He wasn't. He had great, great feet for guy as big as he was."

"To me," Cowher said, "he had the best feet for any big running back I have ever seen. For a tackle-to-tackle runner, no one could jump-cut like he could at 250. He was special, he was unique, he was a game-changer."

On top of it all, he was the leader of those Steelers teams, with the type of personality that others willingly followed, most famously during that run to Super Bowl XL in which he implored his teammates to "get me home" to Detroit for that game.

"He was one of the most unselfish players I was ever around," said Cowher.

"One of the best leaders I've been around," Donahoe said.

Said Steelers President Art Rooney II, "It's time. Jerome Bettis needs to be in the Hall of Fame."

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