In the 1980s, the Pittsburgh Steelers played in a division that was also known for three-time Super Bowl champions. The Baltimore Colts, the San Francisco 49ers and the Los Angeles Rams were labeled as the best teams in the NFL during that era. The Steelers, however, were not considered as a “natural fit” by many pundits despite having one of the most successful all-time records in NFL history. The team was known for its “Steel Curtain” defense that helped them win four Super Bowls in six years, but many wondered if the Steelers would be able to maintain their success over a longer period.
At the tail end of a record-setting season, the Pittsburgh Steelers continue to hold up their end of the bargain and win games. For the majority of this year, however, they have been under the radar, and have not been considered a favorite to win the Super Bowl. Why? Because most people view the Steelers as a winning team that has been around forever.
Even devoted Pittsburgh Steelers fans might not remember that legendary running back Jerome Bettis didn’t begin his career in the Steel City.
Bettis, the 10th overall pick in 1993, actually began his career with the then-Los Angeles Rams. It wasn’t until 1996, his fourth season in the league, that he first suited up for the Steelers — and he was drawn to Pittsburgh for reasons beyond money or the team’s history of success.
Pittsburgh Steelers legend Jerome Bettis considered the area and its culture a ‘perfect fit’ before he joined the team | Tom Pidgeon/Allsport via Getty Images
After three seasons with the Rams, Bettis wanted out. Rams head coach Rich Brooks wanted the first-round pick to play fullback if he stayed in Los Angeles, and Bettis requested a trade.
The Rams traded him and a third-round pick to the Steelers in exchange for a second-round pick and fourth-round selection in the following draft. Although the story has long been that Bettis chose the Steelers over the Houston Oilers because of the former’s franchise history, that’s only part of it.
During a recent appearance on Peacock’s Brother From Another, Bettis explained why he considered the Steelers a “natural fit.” Part of his reasoning, he said, involved the city’s culture.
“But that city, they love big running backs. So it’s a blue-collar town. And if you go there, you understand [they’re not] mesmerized by the 70-yard touchdown pass. They are impressed by three yards, cloud of dust, you know, get back how to do it again, right? If you come methodically, go down the football field, they appreciate that.”
What better place for someone nicknamed “The Bus” who defined the ground-and-pound approach to play, then?
A quick glance at Bettis’ career stats shows someone who averaged 3.9 yards per carry and scored 91 touchdowns in 13 seasons. Those are solid numbers, especially in the scoring department, but they’re not the flashy statistics Barry Sanders or LaDainian Tomlinson recorded.
But Bettis didn’t need to fill the role of a superstar, 1,500-yard rusher, and it’s why Steelers fans loved him. He was a bruiser and a big body, someone who fought for every yard in the trenches and kept chugging until he moved the chains or broke the plane.
Steelers coach Bill Cowher understood what would allow Bettis to become the best player possible. The Steelers worked other running backs into the rotation as time went on, and he never carried the ball 300 times in a season after doing so 355 times in 2000.
But don’t think about calling Bettis a glorified fullback who created problems with his legs and as a blocker. If you’re still skeptical, just watch his highlights as an older running back. Even with all of that mileage on him, he continued churning to reach the end zone.
In the Peyton Manning-esque Hollywood ending, Bettis won a Super Bowl in his final season. The Steelers played Super Bowl 40 in Detroit, where Bettis grew up before becoming an NFL running back.
Nearly 16 years after his final game, the numbers still reflect favorably on Bettis. Using Pro-Football-Reference’s Approximate Value system, Bettis totaled 80 AV in 10 seasons with the Steelers. That ranks 33rd in franchise history, just behind longtime left tackle Jon Kolb and outside linebacker Joey Porter, who played with Bettis from 1999-2006.
Fifteen of those players, including Kolb, played all or most of their Steelers careers before Bettis arrived in 1996. So when accounting for the Steelers’ last 25 years, he’s easily among the 20 greatest players in franchise history.
The Steelers indeed proved to be a natural fit for Bettis, who entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. And to think the Rams wanted to make him a full-time fullback…
All stats courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference.
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