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Madden: Criticism of Bettis almost nonexistent

Saturday, September 16, 2000

Jerome Bettis said this week that he is able to handle criticism.

My question: What criticism? The Steelers' running back apparently has a Teflon uniform, not that it enables him to slide into the end zone very often. Whenever he has a bad performance -- and yes, gaining 8 yards on nine carries in the opener against Baltimore qualifies as "a bad performance" for Bettis -- you never see or hear Bettis absorbing the brunt of the blame. Or any blame. Nothing sticks to Teflon Jerome.

It's always poor blocking. Or not having a passing game to set up the run. Or Bettis is playing hurt. Or the defense has eight men in the box. Or it's just "bad breaks for The Bus."

Never mind Bettis' opening-game nightmare. That he averaged but 3.6 yards per carry and gained just 1,091 yards last year. That Bettis seems to get halted at the goal line more than Wile E. Coyote gets stopped by the side of the mountain. That Bettis' running style has left him one of the most decrepit 28-year-olds on the planet. That he simply can't hit the hole anymore.

Outside of -- ahem -- my talk show, The Bus never gets dumped on. It doesn't happen in this paper, that's for sure. Bob Smizik speculated a few weeks back that the Steelers might have to consider using Richard Huntley if Bettis doesn't start running better soon. Yeah, and Japan had to consider rebuilding Hiroshima. Smizik's statement has been the extent of Bus-bashing in the print media.

That's because Bettis knows how to play The Game. And The Game I'm talking about isn't football.

The Game is media manipulation. I'm not sure Bettis does it intentionally. He is a genuinely nice guy. I've enjoyed dealing with Bettis on the rare occasions when I've had the privilege. But the bottom line is this: Bettis basically has befriended the entire Pittsburgh football media. I don't mean he enjoys dinner, drinks and dancing with them. But he always goes out of his way to talk to the local football media, see to their interviewing needs and be extremely pleasant and sociable while doing so. The results:

Bettis is above the slings and arrows of Pittsburgh-area ink-stained wretches and most microphone jockeys, too. I heard one media type -- a guy known for his toughness, in fact -- admit point-blank that, no, Bettis hasn't played well in a while, but he doesn't bury him because Bettis is a good egg.

Since fans tend to largely parrot what is written and said by the media, they cut Bettis huge amounts of slack, too. Imagine this: Kordell Stewart goes 1 for 9 for 8 yards passing in a home game. Forget booing. Steelers fans might storm the field and beat up Kordell. Yet no extra jeers descended on The Bus during the Baltimore game. And since then, in the talk-show wars, I've seldom heard callers utter a discouraging word about No. 36.

It's tougher to bench Bettis when there's no big outcry to do so. Don't kid yourself -- popularity counts a bit in matters like this. It'll be hard to not re-sign him at season's end, too.

Bettis' image remains spotless. He can seamlessly and effortlessly continue to pursue his remarkable number of endorsements. I recommend the Giant Eagle Jerome Bettis The Bus Helmet Cake -- it's dee-licious -- and the Giant Eagle Jerome Bettis The Bus Wings aren't bad, either.

This is no indictment of Bettis' proclivity for endorsements. He does almost all his promotional work before the season. It doesn't interfere with football.

This is no indictment of Bettis being a nice guy, either. We should all be so nice.

It is, however, an indictment of the Pittsburgh media. Bettis averaged less than a yard per carry against Baltimore. He should have been able to average more by just falling forward. He's about 2 yards tall, after all. But Bettis' failure to get yardage and failure to score when the Steelers got down close was glossed over. And this wasn't just one bad game for Bettis. It was a bad game on the heels of a bad season.

But it's OK. Jerome and his pals talked about it, and it's OK. You have to be able to pass the ball, too. Oh, wait, Kent Graham threw for a respectable 199 yards vs. the Ravens. Bad excuse.

Chances are it will be OK after the game tomorrow against Cleveland, too. Bettis could easily have a big game against the hapless Browns. Happy days will be here again. And if the Browns shut down Bettis, I'm sure perfectly logical reasons will be at the ready.

Bettis used to be an excellent back. Good speed for a big man and good power for a man any size. But now The Bus has a couple of flat tires. It's no surprise. Guys who run like him have short careers.

It's funny, though. Former Penguins goalie Tom Barrasso has been far better at his profession than Bettis at his. But, since Barrasso treated almost everyone (and particularly the media) like they smelled bad, his accomplishments got short shrift and his reputation was considered execrable.

Bettis, however, knows how to play The Game.

I'm glad he's still in his prime at something.

Mark Madden hosts a sports talk show 4-8 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM 1250.

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