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Savran: Bettis' role needs some re-evaluation

Saturday, January 04, 2003

Will the real Jerome Bettis please stand up? If he can? Until he does, or until he's able, no definitive judgment can be reached on his effectiveness, whether it's tomorrow or next season. Many have concluded that the workaday Bus should be taken off his regular route ... perhaps relegated to specialty charter trips. But do we know for sure?

That he's slowed down is irrefutable. Ten years of serving as a battering Ram/Steeler, encompassing nearly 3,000 carries and as many hits for 11,000 yards takes its toll. Especially when you have his body type and style. But even if you're a swivel-hipped Gale Sayers, or even if you sell insurance or remodel kitchens, the mere fact that you're 10 years older is going to hobble your reflexes, speed and strength. It's a matter of physiology, not just football.

But how much of his reduced production this season is attributable to that injured knee? Look, Bettis may give the impression that he's a straight-ahead, Larry Csonka road grader. But that's not truly his style. What makes him so effective are his feet. For a guy of his bulk, he has amazingly quick feet. A feint here, a jab-step there. And he does it at the line of scrimmage-in the hole, not 10 yards downfield where any NFL commoner can make a move.

So don't focus on the blunt force with which he finishes his runs. It's those remarkable feet that have made him a Hall of Fame back. And when a knee or a groin can't support those feet, you've got a disabled veteran. Oh, he can still run straight ahead and pick up three, but you're not going to get the 10s and 15s that turn field-goal attempts into touchdowns.

But the Steelers are in a position where they must factor his susceptibility to injury when planning for the future. Have the past two seasons been aberrations? Or an omen.

It seems to me they have to evaluate their situation at running back from two perspectives -- short term and long term.

For now, assuming Bettis is reasonably healthy, he's got to be used, but with the realization that the pecking order among the running backs has changed, as have their designated roles.

Heretofore, Amos Zereoue has been relegated to a specialty back ... third downs or obvious passing downs. That must change. The starter-backup designation must be reconfigured into a No. 1-No. 1A rotation based on circumstance. The truth is, neither man can carry the load of being the running back. And while each must continue to be utilized in a manner which best suits his particular talents, Zereoue's role should be expanded to pick up for the time Bettis can no longer fill.

From the team's perspective, the tandem is better than either individual. What's that about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts?

As for next year, I still believe Bettis has a good year left in him, presuming he stays reasonably healthy. Question is, can he? Three thousand carries means about the same number of black and blue marks. And although he's dished out his share of punishment, for the most part giving as good as he has gotten, that also reduces the body, if not the spirit.

If the Steelers decide that for performance and/or salary cap reasons they must move in a different direction (although they'd better carefully consider the tremendous leadership he provides in that locker room) they will need to find another lead running back. Or at least one capable and willing to share the spotlight with Zereoue.

Absent from the discussion to this point is Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala. He's a good guy to have around, but there's always the issue of how often he'll be around. He has played five NFL seasons, but only once did he participate in all 16 games. If Bettis' durability is a chapter, then Fu's is the entire book. And while he undeniably has his strengths, he doesn't have the feet or running instincts of a Bettis, or most top runners in the league. He might serve as a fine, though occasional, alternative, but that would place too much of the load on Zereoue. So, if the Steelers hop off the Bus, they're going to have to upgrade to a more viable option than Fu.

But that's tomorrow. In the figurative today, they need to go from B to Z. Zereoue has certainly proven he is deserving and capable of handling the extra work. As for Bettis, a reduced role doesn't necessarily mean it's a less important one.


Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. on WBGG-AM (970).

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