Monday, January 31, 2005

Ron Cook: Bettis' Legacy


It's time for Bettis to retire, but what a legacy he leaves
Sunday, January 30, 2005
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

For the better part of a week, I've been trying to work up a good case of sympathy for Jerome Bettis. I have to tell you. I just can't do it.

The easy explanation is Bettis is a millionaire many times over. How do you feel sorry for one of those? You know what Bettis is going to do when he's done with football? Whatever he wants.
You'd take that, wouldn't you?

Bettis will be a father, first and foremost. His fiancee is due in March with their first child. When he's not busy with diapers, he'll attend to his many business interests. He'll probably get into broadcasting and be darn good at it. He'll make personal appearances and do the autograph shows, where, these days, you could feed a small country on what they pay an athlete who can attach H.O.F. -- short for Hall of Fame -- to his signature. And he'll do his estimable charity work, both here and in Detroit, his hometown.

All Bettis has to do for the next 40 or 50 years is be Jerome Bettis.

Who wouldn't want that job?

Feeling sorry for Bettis is a little like feeling sorry for Dan Marino, who is to South Florida what Mario and, to a much lesser degree, Big Ben are to Pittsburgh.

We're talking a serious waste of time and emotion.

Yes, it would have been wonderful if Marino and Bettis had won a Super Bowl. Bettis probably lost his final chance to play in one when the Steelers were beaten by the New England Patriots last Sunday night in the AFC championship.

He acknowledged as much to his teammates during an emotional team meeting Monday morning.

Bettis could come back with the Steelers next season, but that seems unlikely.
Chances are they won't pay him more than the $1 million he made this season and, considering he turns 33 next month, they probably shouldn't.

It's not as if they are short of running backs. Duce Staley will be the man next season with Verron Haynes and Willie Parker as backups.

Bettis also could play for another team, although that, too, seems almost out of the question. He's a student of the game and knows its history well.

He remembers how sad Franco Harris looked in a Seattle Seahawks uniform 20 years ago. He's not going to want to look similarly misplaced in, say, a Detroit Lions uniform.
No, the best chance is Bettis will retire.

If he does, he won't take a Super Bowl ring out of the game, but he'll take away something more valuable in a different kind of way.

In my 25 years in the business, I've never seen a player who is more respected among his teammates.

It's not just that Bettis is the fifth-leading rusher in NFL history. Superstar numbers alone don't make a man beloved in his locker room.
See Kobe.

See Barry Bonds.

It's the way Bettis carries himself. "He is," teammate Hines Ward often said, "the Pittsburgh Steelers."

It's the way Bettis set his ego aside for the good of the team this season, first after the Steelers signed Staley to a big-money deal and then after Staley returned from a long injury absence, a period during which Bettis had four consecutive 100-yard games.

How many other Hall of Famers would have done that?

The other players know. You should have been at practice the day late in the season when Fox broadcaster Howie Long showed up with a new truck for Bettis as the winner of his Tough Guy Award. To see the players' joy for Bettis, you would have thought they each had been given keys.

The Steelers' feelings about Bettis were more telling after that team meeting Monday.
Bettis had stood up and delivered what sounded very much like a farewell address, thanking his teammates for their friendship, for their hard work and for a wonderful ride together, the memories of which will last a lifetime.

Did you see that picture of Ward on the front page of the Post-Gazette Tuesday? The one with the tears rolling down his cheeks?

You probably won't see anything like it again. Ward wasn't crying because of the loss to the Patriots, although it surely hurt. He was crying because he felt as if he and the others had let Bettis down by not getting to the Super Bowl.

"I wanted it more for him than for me," Ward said through his sobs. "He deserves to be a champion."

It's safe to say even hardened Bill Cowher also bawled at that team meeting. He practically turned weepy just talking about Bettis at his season-ending press briefing a few days later.
"I've got a lot of respect for the man as a man," Cowher said.
"He's a good player, a better person."

That seems to be the consensus around town, as well. That might be Bettis' most remarkable achievement, more impressive than his 13,294 rushing yards or his 82 touchdowns. We are not living in gentle sporting times. The disconnection between fans and athletes never has been greater. It's pretty hard for a man making $8 an hour to relate to a ballplayer making $800,000 a game. But Bettis has beaten that.

He didn't do it by winning four Super Bowls. He did it with his personality and his warmth. He did it by always smiling, even on those days such as last Sunday when things didn't go so well for him or his team. And he did it by treating his unique ability to run with the football as a privilege, as a gift from God.

So many players today treat their talent as a birthright and, shamefully, take it for granted.
Maybe Bettis isn't more beloved than the Super Steelers from the 1970s. But he's right there with those guys. He'll always be right there with them in this town.

And I'm supposed to feel sorry for him because he didn't get to the Super Bowl?

I've got to stop being so envious first.

(Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.)

Ed Bouchette: Post-Season Analysis

Post-Season Analysis: '05 picture might be even better
Sunday, January 30, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

KEY DATES:
Feb. 22: Teams designate franchise and transition players
March 2: Free-agency period begins
April 23-24: NFL draft

Slick posters from the Steelers' 2004 season are on sale through the Post-Gazette. They're nice keepsakes. Frame them, hang them on the wall, and send them as gifts to family and friends.
It's a good way to remember the Steelers' record 2004 season, at least the regular season, because this is one newspaper product that provides only the good news.

You won't find the Steelers' 41-27 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship on the poster. Perhaps it will be included in a poster for next season, because, as Bill Cowher said, this is the beginning, not the end.

A poster that would better define the entire season would be a glossy reprint of the Jan. 26 front page of Hines Ward in tears. Now that tells the story, and it's not necessarily a bad one. Ward shows the passion and bitter disappointment of an entire team.

It just might represent a beginning, because the Steelers rebuilt a base in 2004, one of philosophy and attitude and, yes, talent that should carry them for several years. Somewhere along the line, the Steelers need to discover how to get over the hump and whether something they are doing or not doing prevents them from succeeding in the postseason. Otherwise, everything seems to be in place for them to make a run at the Super Bowl next season and beyond.

If anything, the Steelers should improve in 2005. That doesn't mean they will win 15 games again. Their schedule may preclude that. The Patriots and Jaguars visit Heinz Field and the Steelers play at Indianapolis, San Diego, Green Bay and Minnesota. That's not a schedule conducive to winning 15 games. But then, the Steelers beat both teams that will play in the Super Bowl, quite handily, in successive games at home the past season.

Although teams can go sour in a hurry in the NFL, the Steelers should be better for many reasons:
* Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton returns, and his backup Chris Hoke proved he deserves more playing time, perhaps in the nickel and dime defense.
* Ben Roethlisberger should be a much better quarterback, more knowledgeable about defenses and his offense. The Steelers can afford to put more on his shoulders next season and strike a better balance between the run and the pass than they did in 2004. His coaches, though, must put him through a rigorous offseason program, on and off the field, and make sure he spends much of his time at the team's training facility, starting in March.
* As well as the offensive line played, it may improve with Kendall Simmons back at right guard and massive Max Starks at right tackle. As with Roethlisberger, safeties Troy Polamalu and Chris Hope will benefit next season from their first as starters. So, too, will linebackers Clark Haggans and Larry Foote.
* The offense and defense will benefit from the entire coaching staff's return. This was Cowher's best staff up and down the line, starting with the two new coordinators, Dick LeBeau on defense and Ken Whisenhunt on offense.
* Free agency, which robbed some Steelers playoff teams in the 1990s of top talent, won't be a large factor this year. They may lose Plaxico Burress, but Antwaan Randle El is ready to fill that role if they do. They may lose Kendrell Bell, but he was lost for the season anyway and Larry Foote played well in his absence. They will lose Keydrick Vincent and probably Oliver Ross on the right side of their line, but Simmons and Starks will more than make up for that.

Here are some moves the Steelers should make:
* Ask Chad Scott to take a pay cut, the way Jerome Bettis did this past year. They may not want to pay Scott, a veteran cornerback, $4 million in salary, but he's worth having back at a more reasonable number.
* Make Plaxico Burress a decent offer. He's not likely to take it because someone will unload a ton of money on him. The other option is to put the franchise number on him and swallow more than $7 million as a cap hit for one season. That would allow the Steelers to see if Burress and Roethlisberger can build on their rapport and buy the Steelers one more year to find or develop another receiver behind Randle El.
* Sign Hines Ward, who has one year left on his contract, to a long-term deal. He represents the heart and soul of the team.
* Make Ross an offer, but not a big one because Starks will take over at right tackle. Ross would become the top backup at tackle/guard if he accepts their terms, although he likely will leave as a free agent. Vincent will sign elsewhere as a free agent.
* Convince Bettis to play another season, and do it soon. The Steelers can go with Duce Staley, Bettis, Verron Haynes and Willie Parker another season. However, if Bettis decides to retire or does not like the terms, the Steelers will need another good running back, through the draft or a free-agent bargain.
* Find out what Tommy Maddox is thinking, and if he will accept his role as the backup to Roethlisberger. If he is steadfast against it, trade him. Charlie Batch, provided his knee is sound, would re-sign as the No. 2 quarterback. Otherwise, Brian St. Pierre can be No. 2.
* Alonzo Jackson is not an outside linebacker. Either try to use him as a situational pass rusher or turn him into a 3-4 defensive end. If he can't do either, be done with him.

The Steelers do not need to sign any expensive free agents, no matter what happens or which players leave. They do not need to pursue cornerback Ty Law or find someone on the outside to replace Burress. They need to continue to look for players such as Travis Kirschke, Clint Kriewaldt, Willie Williams and James Harrison -- good players who either bargains in free agency or were on the street, players who can help you win.

The draft can be used to truly take the highest-rated players on their board, unless he's a quarterback, in the top rounds. The Steelers can use a tight end who is a good pass receiver and can become a steady target for Roethlisberger. They don't need to abandon their philosophy about blocking tight ends, but a complement to that would help. It's something they haven't had in a long time.

Cornerback and wide receiver also should be high on their list, whether or not Scott and Burress return. The Steelers always need outside linebackers but they should consider one of those undersized athletic defensive ends in the middle rounds and give him a year or so to develop, the way they did with Joey Porter, Jason Gildon, Clark Haggans, etc.
Kimo von Oelhoffen is 34, so finding a stud defensive end -- like Aaron Smith -- should be a priority.

Most importantly, Cowher and his staff need to follow the plan they devised a year ago when everyone seemed to draw motivation from their 6-10 record in 2003. The thoughts of preventing that again carried them through the offseason and into training camp.

How do you draw that kind of motivation after blowing through 16 games with 15 victories? That's easy. Instead of the Post-Gazette's slick salute to that accomplishment, the Steelers should construct a poster of their own. Reproduce the photo of a tearful Hines Ward and nail it to the inside of each player's locker, on the door of each coach and in the office of every Steelers executive.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Ed Bouchette: Ward, Steelers Share Emotions In Meeting


Ward, Steelers share emotions in meeting after crushing defeat
Tuesday, January 25, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

More Steelers coverage:
Last run for the Bus? He's not certain
All through Steelers Nation, the pain of Sunday's loss continues
Steelers Notebook: Holes to fill

Hines Ward cried yesterday. Tears flowed freely down the cheeks of the Steelers' tough wide receiver as he tried to describe what it meant to lose a big game and watch a Super Bowl opportunity possibly forever slip the grasp of Jerome Bettis and others.

The Steelers held an emotional meeting yesterday morning, 13 hours after their 41-27 loss to New England in the AFC championship game at Heinz Field. Bettis addressed the group, just in case this was his last chance to do so with these teammates.

"It was very emotional," Ward said, halting to regain his composure or to wipe away a tear. "He got up and said how much he enjoyed playing with everybody. I don't know what he is going to do. We had a chance to do something special and we fell short this year."

Ward's reaction in front of two-dozen members of the news media was evidence how much this latest failure in an AFC championship game at home disheartened the Steelers.
"Everybody was crying," Ward said. "That's how bad it hurts. I felt sorry for [Bettis] because I have learned so much from the guy. He's already a champion to me regardless if he ever played in the Super Bowl or not. I learned so much from him."

After 12 NFL seasons, nine with the Steelers, Bettis has not decided if he will retire or return next season.

"I just told the guys that if, in fact, this is the last opportunity for me to be with you guys it was a great experience and I just want to thank everybody for the memories," Bettis said. "If you do decide this is the end of the road you don't want to have any regrets in saying that I didn't have the opportunity to speak to the guys."

Ward was composed when he addressed the media Sunday night after the loss to the Patriots, but he could not hold back the tears yesterday.

"Just today, sitting in the meetings [with] some of the older guys that don't get a chance, may never get a chance to play football again, it's disappointing for those guys, guys like Jerome Bettis, he has done so much for me as a player. It hurt. It hurts."

After the meeting at which others spoke and many cried, only three players were found willing to talk to the assembled media.

"It was pretty emotional," center Jeff Hartings said, "and I think it's probably pretty uncommon for that kind of thing to happen at the end of a season like this and I think it says a lot about this team. ... We just thoroughly enjoyed playing football.

"We honestly love each other. It's definitely the tightest team I have ever been on. It's a privilege to play with them. I kind of felt at the end that I would rather lose a game like that with this team than win a Super Bowl with a team I didn't even enjoy playing with."

The Steelers, picked by most to finish third in the AFC North Division after a 6-10 record in 2003, survived numerous injuries to starters and rallied around a rookie quarterback to compile their best record in team history, 15-1. In the end, though, they were once again denied a spot in the Super Bowl, which they most recently won 25 years ago this month.

"We all failed," Bettis said. "I didn't deserve it more than the next guy. I just let the guys know that, hey, it was a heck of a ride, we fell short. ... You win for your teammates and I was a teammate. It was special what [Ward] said but I don't think you have to win one for me."
Bettis, though, said he, too, was moved after the response by Ward and others.

"It goes further than football. It made me appreciate those guys a lot more for that. ... For some of the guys in there it is going to be our last opportunity, regardless if I come back or not. It's a last opportunity to talk to and thank the guys for playing 110 percent. As a leader on the football team, you have to thank everybody for the effort they put in.

"This is the closest team I've ever been on. It truly felt like a family. That's why I wanted to share a moment with those guys because I really appreciate them. They've been very inspirational to me. They've meant a lot to me. Just to share some thoughts with them, I thought was important."

Click here for more National Football League news and stats.

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.)

Monday, January 24, 2005

Ed Bouchette: Turnovers, Poor Defense Doom Steelers


Turnovers, poor defense doom Steelers to another AFC title loss
Monday, January 24, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


More playoff news:

Frustrated Burress says it's likely his final game with Steelers
A cold reality settles over Steelers Nation
Steelers Notebook: Bettis wants to take time before career decision
Steelers Super Bowl dream dies at hands of Patriots
Vinatieri's early kick matches Heinz Field record
Steelers Sound Off: If this is it for the Bus, it was a nice ride
NFC Championship: Eagles finally deliver, pound Falcons, 27-10
NFC Championship: Rarely used Lewis gives Eagles a lift
NFC Championship: Eagles' defense turns Vick into a nonfactor
NFC Championship Notebook: Falcons' DT ponders retirement
Eagles face far greater Super Bowl challenge in Patriots than Falcons
As expected, Patriots favorite in Super Bowl
Steelers Photo Journal: AFC Championship / Steelers vs. Patriots

The clock struck midnight on Big Ben and the Steelers' enchanted season last night.

It occurred with a loud clang in Heinz Field, as the New England Patriots chewed up rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and spit out the Steelers, 41-27, to advance in defense of their Super Bowl crown.

It has become a common event, the Steelers losing AFC championships at home. This was their fourth loss in five such games in the past 11 years. The only difference this time? It wasn't close. The Patriots ran out to a 21-point halftime lead to quiet the record crowd of 65,242 early, although they booed loudly in the fourth quarter when coach Bill Cowher opted for a short field goal while trailing by 14.

It was the second time in four seasons the Patriots won the AFC championship game in Heinz Field.

"That's happened twice to us," said receiver Hines Ward, one of the few productive Steelers with five receptions for 109 yards and a touchdown. "It's just a sick feeling to see those guys celebrate on our field."

The Steelers, winners of 15 in a row and coming off a team-record 15-1 regular season, were no match for New England. Roethlisberger, 14-0 as a starter in a magical season, continued his poor playoff play. He threw three interceptions, including his second returned for a long touchdown the past two weeks.

"Ben did some things well," Cowher said, "but you can't throw three interceptions, not in a game of this magnitude, not one for a touchdown."
Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, completed 14 of 21 passes for 207 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Wide receiver Deion Branch, who missed the Patriots' 34-20 defeat here Oct. 31, torched the Steelers with four receptions for 116 yards. That included a 60-yard touchdown in the first quarter that staked New England to a 10-0 lead and set the pace.

"Big games need big plays," Steelers linebacker Clark Haggans said. "I guess that would be the key to them winning today."
The Patriots turned the tables on the Steelers, who ran out to a 21-3 first-quarter lead against them in October. Last night, New England jumped ahead, 24-3, at the half.

"We won the first one," Haggans said. "They won the second, but this is the one that counts."

The Steelers could not get their ground game going early behind running back Jerome Bettis, nor when they switched to Duce Staley. And Roethlisberger again was unable to work the charms he had earlier in the season. His first pass on the first series was a poor one. He threw it high and behind wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, who leaped and tipped it with his left hand. New England cornerback Asante Samuel then tipped it again and safety Eugene Wilson intercepted.

That led to Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal, the longest by an opponent in Heinz field.

The Steelers responded on their next series by moving to the Patriots' 39, where Cowher, gambling early, opted to send Bettis off left guard on fourth-and-1. Bettis was stopped in his tracks, then fumbled, and the Patriots recovered at the 40.

On the next play, Brady, with plenty of time, threw deep to Branch, who beat cornerback Deshea Townsend for a 60-yard touchdown, the longest reception against the Steelers all season.

"He should have had help down the middle," Cowher said of Townsend.
Jeff Reed kicked a 43-yard field goal to cut the lead to 10-3, but it was hardly the sign of a comeback.

Brady went deep again to Branch in the second quarter, and Branch pulled in another long one, this for 45 yards to the 14. Two plays later, cornerback Willie Williams fell down, and Brady threw sideways in front of him to Givens, who easily stepped the 9 yards for a touchdown and a 17-3 lead.
"You're down, 17-3, and you're scrambling, you're fighting back," linebacker Joey Porter said.

The Steelers looked as though they might get back into it near the end of the first half. Thanks to Ward's 19-yard reception, they had a second down at the Patriots' 19. But Patriots safety Rodney Harrison stepped in front of Roethlisberger's pass for tight end Jerame Tuman, intercepted it and returned it 87 yards for a touchdown. Last week, Jets safety Reggie Tongue took one of Roethlisberger's passes back 86 yards for a score.
"That," Cowher said, "was [at least] a 10-point swing."
The defending champs led, 24-3.

"I saw Harrison driving," Roethlisberger said, "I tried to squeeze it in to Jerame."

The Steelers scored on their first drive of the third quarter, moving five plays in 56 yards. Roethlisberger threw a screen pass on the left to Randle El, who scampered 34 yards to the 5. Bettis romped off left tackle for the score and the Patriots led by 14.

The Patriots answered with another touchdown, a 25-yard run by running back Corey Dillon, and a 31-10 lead. Twice, the Steelers thought they had stopped the Patriots. On third-and-17, though, defensive end Aaron Smith was penalized for holding, giving the Patriots a first down. And a Givens fumble, caused and recovered by Williams, was overturned when instant replay showed Givens' knee was down before the ball popped out.
Ward caught a 30-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger with 2:35 left in the third quarter to make it 31-17.

The Steelers blew a chance to climb within seven when they moved to a first down at New England's 4 at the start of the fourth quarter after a 25-yard run by Bettis and a 26-yard catch by Ward. But wide receiver Plaxico Burress dropped a fade pass in the end zone sandwiched around two Bettis runs for 2 yards, and Cowher opted to send Reed on for the 20-yard field goal. The crowd booed the curious call that kept New England in front by 11 with 13:29 left.

"I'd do it again," Cowher said of his decision.
Vinatieri got those back for New England with 8:03 to go when he kicked a 31-yard field goal.

Branch scored his second touchdown on a 23-yard end around for a 41-20 Patriots lead before Burress scored on a 7-yard pass from Roethlisberger with 52 seconds left.
"Today, they were just the better team," Ward said. "They had their A game and we didn't."

Not surprising. It was, after all, the AFC championship game.
Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hangs his head as he makes his way to the tunnel after losing to the Patriots in the AFC championship.

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.)

Gene Collier: Givens Takes Steelers Out of Game

Monday, January 24, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

You could wander around the New England locker room for a good 15 minutes after last night's AFC championship game without bumping into a guy who hadn't intercepted Ben Roethlisberger, but it wasn't the Patriots' redoubtable defenders who shattered Pittsburgh hearts 60 minutes short of the Super Bowl.

It was David Givens, Deion Branch, David Patten and the entire fleet of streaking New England receivers at the disposal of gifted big-game quarterback Tom Brady who put Bill Belichick's team in the big game for the second consecutive year and the third time in the past four seasons.

"Deion really gave us a big lift," Belichick said after a 41-27 cadenza that left little doubt as to the identity of the best team in the conference, and easily the better team in the building last night.

After a week of hand-wringing all over Western Pennsylvania due to the availability of running back Corey Dillon, who missed the Halloween massacre won by the Steelers, it was Branch, who also missed that game, who proved to be the perfect poison for a 15-game Steelers winning streak.
New England had converted the first of three Roethlisberger interceptions into a 3-0 lead thanks mostly to a pretty 14-yard reverse that Branch ran to the Steelers' 34, but no one thought the Steelers were in any particular trouble when Branch went one-on-one with Deshea Townsend on the next Patriots possession.

Uh, wrong.

Branch ran a textbook post from his own 40, and Brady threw a classical Patriot missile that found him in stride a step behind Townsend for a 10-point lead that would hang like black crepe in the bone-chilling air all night. But on the occasion of the coldest game in the four-year history of Heinz Field -- 11 degrees at kickoff with a wind chill of minus-1 -- Branch stayed white hot.

The third-year greyhound out of Louisville caught four balls for 116 yards, each in a critical jackpot of yardage that doomed Pittsburgh's flagging opportunities.

"We try to throw to the open guy," Belichick said. "What you try to do is not throw it where there are a lot of defenders."

Oh yeah, another burst of genius from the somnambulant Pats coach, whom you could dismiss as virtually inconsequential to this New England win if it weren't for the nettlesome arithmetic that now finds him 8-0 in the postseason in his current job, and 9-1 overall.

That 9-1 stat, by the way, ties Belichick with none other than Vince Lombardi, who has a famous trophy named after him, for the best career playoff winning percentage among coaches who have been in at least 10 postseason games.

The only thing more valuable in New England's jewelry case might be Brady's 8-0 record as a postseason starter, which is unprecedented.
Brady's first perfect long toss to Branch was just the teaser. He followed it with a 45-yard laser between Steelers safeties Chris Hope and Troy Polamalu that put New England on the verge of a 17-3 lead midway through the second quarter.

One play later, Brady whipped a flat pass to Givens at the Steelers' 9, where the famously reliable corner Willie Williams was slipping on the cold lawn, and Givens danced to the end zone.

"There is no quarterback I would rather have," said Belichick. "He's a smart guy and a tough guy and great competitor. He's always prepared. He's always on top of the game plan. He sees things well on the field. I don't think the magnitude of the game or the crowd noise or the situation bothers him.

"He's able to focus on what he has to do and usually does a pretty good job on it."

Really.

If Brady's best big-play friend was Branch, his most reliable connection was Givens, who caught five balls, one more crucial than the next. It was Givens' 18-yard catch, to which a 15-yard personal foul call against Clark Haggans was attached, that moved the ball to the Pittsburgh 25 after the Steelers had closed to within 24-10. When Dillon ripped a simple off-tackle for 25 yards and a score on the next play, everything that happened afterward was mostly an exercise in wishful thinking for those among the 65,242 who hadn't already left.

Five hours before that, on the sidewalk outside Heinz Field, stadium personnel were making this announcement: "We apologize, but some of the locks on the gates are frozen."

Would those be the locks on the gates that keep Bill Cowher's team out of the Super Bowl? Just askin'.

(PG sports columnist Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.)

Ron Cook: The Truth is, Roethlisberger Had a Rotten Game


Rookie had a great season, but loss in AFC title game a painful ending
Monday, January 24, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Let's get all of the appropriate qualifiers out at the start. Ben Roethlisberger was a rookie. He played some marvelous football this season, better than anyone could have imagined after Tommy Maddox went down in Baltimore in Week 2. He saved the Steelers' fannies, going 13-0 in the regular season and allowing them to dream Super Bowl dreams. And he played just well enough against the New York Jets to become only the fourth rookie quarterback since 1970 to win a playoff game.

Now, the harsh truth.

Roethlisberger's performance in the 41-27 loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game last night at Heinz Field was every bit as bad as Neil O'Donnell's when O'Donnell played pitch-and-catch with Dallas Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown in Super Bowl XXX.
You know what else?

It was worse than Kordell Stewart's three-interception game against the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game after the 1997 season.
At least the Broncos didn't run one of Stewart's picks back for a killer touchdown.

"I feel like I let a lot of people down," Roethlisberger said. "I let my teammates down, the fans, the coaches ..."

Say this about the kid:
He's a straight shooter.

It's just a shame he wasn't so right-on with his passes.

It shouldn't have come as a surprise, really. All of the talk leading up to the game was about the Corey Dillon factor, about how the presence of the great running back would give the Patriots an edge they didn't have on Halloween Night when the Steelers whacked them and ended their record 21-game winning streak. It seems so silly now. The biggest advantage, by far, that the Patriots had was at quarterback.

New England's Tom Brady is a winner. He was 7-0 as a postseason starter coming in, a two-time Super Bowl MVP. And Roethlisberger? He wasn't just a rookie trying to make NFL history by taking his team to the Super Bowl. He was a struggling rookie, one who had thrown seven interceptions and just four touchdown passes in his previous four games.

Indeed, Brady was terrific, making the proud Steelers defense look ordinary. Don't bet against him winning that third MVP award when the Patriots play the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX in two weeks.
Just as true, Roethlisberger was not terrific. He picked a rotten time to have his first three-interception game.

"You can't throw three interceptions, not in a game of this magnitude," coach Bill Cowher said.

Roethlisberger was off from the start. His first pass was behind Antwaan Randle El and intercepted by safety Eugene Wilson. That led to a New England field goal.

Roethlisberger's second interception was the one that doomed the Steelers to a "what-if" offseason. The Steelers were driving at the New England 19 late in the second quarter, looking to close to 17-6 or even to 17-10.

Roethlisberger saw safety Rodney Harrison sitting on tight end Jerame Tuman in the right flat, but, as big-armed quarterbacks often do, he tried to force the ball. Harrison returned the interception 87 yards for a touchdown.
"That's like a 10-point swing," Cowher said.

Said Roethlisberger, "Obviously, that was a bad choice, a bad decision."
No one can blame this lame game on Roethlisberger's gloves. He didn't wear one on his passing hand, perhaps caving in to the public outrage that followed his shaky performance last week against the Jets. If that's what happened, shame on him. Only he knows how the ball feels in his hand -- gloved or otherwise. Certainly Joe in Munhall on the car phone doesn't.

You want to blame something besides Roethlisberger's accuracy, blame the New England defense. It was outstanding, just as it was against a little more proven quarterback -- the Indianapolis Colts' Peyton Manning -- a week earlier.

"They threw the book at us," Roethlisberger said.

Roethlisberger played better in the second half. And who knows what would have happened if Plaxico Burress hadn't dropped his lob pass in the end zone early in the fourth quarter? Had Burress made that catch, the Steelers would have pulled to 31-24 with momentum.
But let's be honest here.

Roethlisberger and the Steelers didn't deserve to win. They didn't play well enough to win.

"It would have been fun to see what would have happened if we didn't turn the ball over," center Jeff Hartings said.

"[Roethlisberger] tried to make plays. That's what he's always done. That's how he won a lot of games.

"If you ask me, you want a playmaker at that position. I'll take that every time and we'll come back next year and try again."

At that moment, though, next year seemed a million years away.
"It's been a record-breaking, storybook year," Roethlisberger said. "Unfortunately, a lot of people are going to see it as an all-or-nothing thing because we didn't go all the way. But it was a good season."

Actually, it was a great season.

All but the lousy ending.

(PG sports columnist Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.)

Bob Smizik: Don't Blame Cowher For This Title Defeat


Monday, January 24, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

One common thread runs through the massively disappointing recent Steelers history in AFC championship games, an era that includes four losses in five games played on their home field.
As is well known that common thread is William Laird Cowher.

He has been the man in charge as seasons of grand expectations too often have fallen one game short of the Super Bowl, and too often when the Steelers were favored to win. As is also well known, Cowher has taken an abundance of abuse locally and nationally for this abysmal record.

His many detractors will gladly be willing to blame this latest defeat -- a humiliating 41-27 defeat to the New England Patriots last night at Heinz Field -- on Cowher. But that would be wrong.

Of course, Cowher played a role in this loss. But he was a bit player when it comes to being responsible for it.
This defeat falls squarely on Cowher's players, who were grossly inadequate on this major stage.

The team that had played so well for so long -- 15 wins in a row -- came up awful on almost every front in the most important game of the season. Some of the credit for that must go to the Patriots, an excellent, possibly great, team that is one win away from its third Super Bowl championship in four years. But only some.

Cowher bashers will say the team came out flat. They weren't flat; they were flattened. They were outplayed in every facet of the game.

The culprits were numerous.

First and foremost stood quarterback Ben Roethlisberger who threw three interceptions, one of which was returned for a touchdown. For the second consecutive game, Roethlisberger played like a rookie -- a bad rookie at that.

The quarterback position was the major difference in the game.

Roethlisberger's numbers looked decent -- 12 of 24 for 226 yards and two touchdowns -- but that's misleading. His three interceptions crippled the Steelers and it was clear that the last thing Cowher and offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt wanted to do was throw the ball.

While Roethlisberger stumbled, New England quarterback Tom Brady was magnificent, completing 14 of 21 for 207 yards and two touchdowns. He did not throw an interception and had a superb passer rating of 130.5. Brady is clearly the NFL's best big-game quarterback since Joe Montana.

As for Roethlisberger, as well as he played this season, on the basis of his final two games, he'll enter next season as a bit of a question mark. He'll have to prove himself again.

He was hardly alone in disappointing play.

The No. 1 defense in the league was no match for the Patriots and Cowher made no attempt to hide his disappointment this unit.
"We couldn't come up with the defensive stops," he said. "That was as big as anything."

After trailing, 24-3, at the half, the Steelers scored 17 points on their first three possessions of the third quarter. But the defense gave up 10 points and the Steelers couldn't get back in the game.

As bad as the Steelers played, Plaxico Burress had a chance to get them back in the game but instead made one of the biggest drops of his career in what was undoubtedly his final game with the team
.
The Steelers trailed by 14 early in the fourth quarter and had first down on the Patriots' 4. After Jerome Bettis ran for a yard, Burress ran a fade pattern toward the left corner of the end zone. Roethlisberger's pass hit him in the hands. What more could he ask for? Maybe a bucket of glue. Burress couldn't hold on to the ball.

"It would have been nice to get seven there," Cowher said.
When Bettis could get only another yard on third down, the Steelers had to kick a field goal.

They were down 11 instead of seven and the difference was enormous.
Not that it would have made any difference the way the defense continued to play.

The tone of the game was set early as the Steelers botched almost everything.

On their second possession, when they were down, 3-0, Bettis made a crucial fumble that the Patriots recovered. On the next play, Brady threw a perfect 60-yard touchdown pass to Deion Branch, who ran past Deshea Townsend.

Townsend was supposed to have help on the play, but a safety never came over to help.

Down, 24-10, midway through the third quarter, the Steelers were in the process of making a rare defensive stop. The Patriots had third-and-17 on their 37. A screen pass fell incomplete and a punt should have been forthcoming. But defensive end Aaron Smith held on the play, giving the Patriots a first down.

On the next play, Brady threw 18 yards to David Givens and an unnecessary roughness penalty against Clark Haggans moved the ball to the Steelers' 25.

From there, Corey Dillon, who had been help in check all night, ran threw a spiritless defense for a touchdown.

It was a sad ending to an otherwise remarkable season. Cowher is 1-4 in AFC title games. It's a miserable record. But he has had plenty of help.

(PG sports columnist Bob Smizik can be reached at bsmizik@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1468.)

Ed Bouchette: Steelers Made Mistakes Even Before Kickoff


BGI Analysis: Steelers made mistakes even before kickoff
Someone got into Big Ben's head about the gloves

Monday, January 24, 2005
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

All things considered, you'd rather be Philadelphia. At least the Eagles reached the Super Bowl after three straight misses. The Steelers may not get back there in our lifetime.

It does not seem to matter whether the Steelers are favorites, underdogs, play in Three Rivers Stadium, Heinz Field, in warm weather or frigid. They cannot win the AFC championship game at home. They did it one time out of five in the past 11 years and that took a few miracles to happen. Maybe it's time for them to try it on the road next year.

I heard Antwaan Randle El talking on a local radio show this morning. Everyone's been talking about the mistakes the Steelers made last night and how they might have won had they not made some of them. True, but Randle El noted how the Patriots did not make many mistakes, a big reason they win.

The Steelers made mistakes even before the kickoff of yesterday's AFC Championship. Ben Roethlisberger, after a week of controversy in the news media, changed his season-long routine of wearing gloves when playing in cold and dry conditions. The result was the first loss of the rookie's professional career. The Steelers made mistakes even before the kickoff. Someone ? fans, coaches, the media? -- got into quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's head early on. He told me a month ago that he wore gloves when it was cold and dry out. After a week of controversy over him wearing them against the Jets, he took his right glove off even though it was cold and dry. This is a quarterback who wore the gloves since his high school days in the cold because he believed they gave him a better grip on the ball. Instead, he listened to the yahoos.

Did that cause him to overthrow Randle El on his first pass for an interception? I don't know. But not wearing them was telling. So, too, was the stop the Patriots made of Jerome Bettis on fourth-and-one at New England's 39. The Patriots were up 3-0. The Steelers had a chance to make the first down and at least tie the game. It was an opportunity for either team to make a statement and the Patriots did just that by slamming the door on the Bus. Next play, 60 yard touchdown pass and New England was off and running at 10-0.

That play also may have caused coach Bill Cowher to kick a field goal in the fourth quarter to cut the lead to 11 instead of going for it on fourth down at the two. The coach made a statement there and it wasn't a good one.

If the 6-5 Plaxico Burress had not dropped Roethlisberger's pass on second down from the three, we wouldn't be talking about this right now. But on third and three, the Steelers sent Jerome Bettis up the middle for a yard. OK, now let's see what you have on fourth down? Instead, Cowher chose to kick a field goal.

First, if you decided you were going to do that if you did not make it, why not try something on third down other than a run up the middle in a game in which you haven't been running very well.

So you had first down at the four, trailing by 14, and did not score a touchdown. You have to go for it on fourth down from the two. If you miss, the Patriots get the ball on the two with 13:30 left up by two scores. If you make it, you're down one score with 13:30 to go and there's a huge lift both to the fans and your players.

Instead, Cowher took the air out of everyone, the fans who booed lustily and his own players, by kicking a field goal. And what did he accomplish? They now needed three scores to tie: a touchdown, a two-point conversion and a field goal. That's assuming the Patriots did nothing in the interim.
But then, the Steelers haven't lost four out of five at home without reasons.

And while we're at it, Plaxico Burress answered all of the questions you've been asking me all season about whether they should keep him or not. Why would you want to keep a receiver who drops a touchdown pass in the end zone and then complains afterward that they didn't throw him the ball enough?

Are you kidding me? I wouldn't spend another dime on him. In fact, I'd send a message to the entire franchise today if I were Cowher, Kevin Colbert, Dan Rooney, Art Rooney, whomever. I'd come out and announce that the team will not offer Burress a contract, will not make him their franchise player, will not pursue him in free agency.
Make a statement. The Steelers did not do it in the AFC championship game. Time to work on doing it for next season.

(Black & Gold Insider will continue publishing through Friday with daily analysis, player comments, any Steelers related columns by Ron Cook, Bob Smizik and Gene Collier plus the Fan Q & A with Ed Bouchette. In addition, BGI will publish the transcript of Steelers coach Bill Cowher's season-ending press conference, tentatively scheduled for Wednesday. )

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Jerry DiPaola: Cope Turns 76 Today

Steelers announcer will celebrate birthday in style

By Jerry DiPaola
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, January 23, 2005

Myron Cope turns 76 today, but he may not have time for a traditional birthday party.

No matter. Those swirling, yellow Terrible Towels rising out of the mass of 65,000 or so people at Heinz Field will serve as his candles. The action on the field -- his 12th broadcast of an AFC Championship game featuring the Steelers -- will be the cake.

There a few places on earth he would rather be on his birthday than calling a Steelers game for the team's radio network. The fact that he made it this far in his 35th season is a testament to his love for the game and the team, but -- more significantly -- to his undying work ethic.

"He's a firehorse," said Steelers play-by-play man Bill Hillgrove and Cope's partner for 11 years. "You ring the bell, and he answers."


That's one of the highest compliments you can pay to a man, who was and is a gifted writer and has turned into a sports icon in western Pennsylvania without ever rising above 5-foot-5 inches tall.

He will join broadcast partners Hillgrove, Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley today, despite recent bouts with back problems, throat cancer, pneumonia and a concussion. He showed up at Heinz Field earlier this season with dried blood on the back of his head, the result of a fall at home.

He left that game early, but only after Ilkin urged him to get to the hospital.

"He was in no condition to do a broadcast that day," Hillgrove said. "But that's his job -- to broadcast Steelers game."

And Cope plans to keep doing it for as long as he believes he is able.

"He has really struggled this year with his voice," Hillgrove said, "but when the adrenaline kicks in, he is fine."
Cope admits that the job and the travel have been a challenge this season.

"Because of my age" he said. "But I think I still got it.

"People have asked me if the Steelers win the Super Bowl, will I retire? It has nothing to do with when I retire. I will retire when I feel I am no longer capable or when my bosses feel I'm not capable.

"The problem is it is still an effort for me to speak."
Cope said throat surgery last July shrunk his vocal chords, but he is contemplating an offseason procedure in which doctors will inject fat from his belly into his throat.

"The problem with that is you have to shut up for three weeks," he said. "If I can avoid it, I will."

Meanwhile, he is trying to quit smoking, but he has been a smoker "since I was a kid."

"I enjoy every smoke I ever had," he said. "The only warning was that it would stunt your growth, and I'm proof of that theory. Smoking helps me concentrate, and it has helped me make a thousand deadlines."

Cope, who has called five Super Bowls, revels in the Steelers' successes, but Hillgrove said, "He is really not a homer in the true sense of the word. He is very pro-Steeler, but if they stink, he will tell you that."

He is proud that he invented the Terrible Towel, but he is prouder that he donated its trademark rights nine years ago to the Allegheny Valley School for severely retarded people and people with multiple handicaps.

Cope is qualified to compare this season's Steelers team to the four that won Super Bowls in the 1970s, but he doesn't like to do it. Pressed on the subject, he said today's team might be "even money" to defeat the 1974 team, the Steelers' first champion.

"This team could give them a battle," he said. "For one thing, (defensive linemen) Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton look to me like two guys who can play on just about anybody's line. I think they could give Dwight White and Fats Holmes a battle. Who would win? I don't know."

Cope is most impressed by what he calls "the harmony" on the current team.

"It is amazing with this team. Apparently, New England has the same kind of harmony," he said. "The teams from the '70s had the same kind of harmony."

Cope remembers Joe Greene as the keeper of the peace.

"If someone got out of line in the locker room, all it took was a cocked eyebrow from Joe, and they would shut up," he said. "Fats would occasionally be a problem, but nothing that Joe couldn't correct."

Cope believes the Steelers will win today.

"I like the Steelers at home and I don't think the quarterback (Ben Roethlisberger) will freeze," he said. "He had the jitters (last week against the Jets), but he didn't fold."

Whatever happens, Hillgrove said, "You can always expect the unexpected (from Cope). The bottom line is he is always entertaining. He sees the world funny. That's his gift."

Jerry DiPaola can be reached at trsp20@aol.com or 412-481-5432.

Big Ben Follows Brady's Lead


The QBs: Big Ben follows Brady's lead and just finds ways to win
Mike Bires, Beaver County Times Sports Staff
01/23/2005

PITTSBURGH - Some say Tom Brady is the second coming of Joe Montana, a "system" quarterback who wins and win and wins. The same can be said about the other quarterback in the AFC Championship Game.

Like Brady, a fourth-year pro who's already led the New England Patriots to a pair of Super Bowl wins, Ben Roethlisberger has a knack of doing whatever it takes to secure a win.

While Brady is 7-0 as a starter in the playoffs, Roethlisberger has yet to lose as the Pittsburgh Steelers' starting quarterback. He's 14-0.

Tonight, one of the streaks will end at Heinz Field when the Steelers (16-1) host the Patriots (15-2) in the AFC Championship Game.

"Tom knows he can't win a game by himself," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "Somebody has to block. Someone has to catch the passes he throws. He knows that more than anyone."

So does Roethlisberger, the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the year. Even though he ranked fifth in the regular season among all NFL quarterbacks with a 98.1 passer rating- Brady was ninth at 92.6 - he's not a prolific passer like Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts or Donovan McNabb of the Philadelphia Eagles.

This season as the Steelers re-established the run - they ranked second in rushing and first in rushing attempts - they passed only 358 times. Only the Atlanta Falcons threw fewer passes.In other words, all the Steelers have asked of "Big Ben" is to compliment a potent running game.

"He's done unbelievably well," Brady said of Roethlisberger. "My first year as a rookie, no way I could I have done what he did. I was awful. I couldn't do anything. I was just hoping to show up with my playbook." A sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan, Brady played briefly in one game in 2000 when he served as Drew Bledsoe's backup. A year later, he wrestled the starting job away from Bledsoe and led the Patriots to the first Super Bowl championship in franchise history.

Last season when the Pats won another Super Bowl, Brady became just the fourth player to win multiple Super Bowl MVP honors. Montana, the former San Francisco 49ers superstar, has four. Former Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr and former Steelers QB Terry Bradshaw each have two.

In the 69 games he's started as a pro, Brady has won 55. That winning percentage of .797 ranks first among all active NFL quarterbacks.

"Tom Brady is in a situation a lot of quarterbacks want to be in, and that's winning Super Bowls," Roethlisberger said. "I'm trying to emulate his winning style. He finds ways to get it done and wins games. If I can win like him, I'll be very happy."

The Steelers haven't lost since Sept. 19 when they were beaten by the Baltimore Ravens, 30-14. In the third quarter of that game, Tommy Maddox went down with an elbow injury and Roethlisberger has been the man ever since (although he didn't play the regular-season finale against the Buffalo Bills due to a minor rib injury).

"Everything I hear about Ben is that he gives a lot of credit to his teammates," Brady said.

"I've tried to earn their respect," said Roethlisberger, a former star at Miami of Ohio and the 11th overall pick of the 2004 NFL Draft. "Hopefully, I've done that."

If the Steelers beat the Patriots tonight, Roethlisberger will become the first NFL rookie to start in the Super Bowl.

Mike Bires can be reached online at mbires@timesonline.com.
©Beaver County Times Allegheny Times 2005

Steelers Special in 2004

Special teams shouldn't haunt Pittsburgh this time
Mike Bires, Beaver County Times Sports Staff
01/23/2005


PITTSBURGH - The last time the Steelers played in the AFC Championship Game, Kevin Spencer was an unemployed special teams coach whose fate was about to change.

On an unseasonably warm Jan. 27 day in 2002, Spencer was outside his home in Indianapolis playing with his children. From time to time, he would head back inside and watch as New England and Pittsburgh battled for the right to go to the Super Bowl.

And even though he had no allegiances - he had just been fired by the Colts - Spencer felt the pain of Steelers' special teams Jay Hayes, whose units allowed two touchdowns in a 24-17 loss to the Patriots."

When something like that happens, right away I think of the opposing coach," said Spencer, who's in his third season as the Steelers' special teams coach. "How dreadful he must feel to have that happen on his watch. You don't want to say, 'Thank God, it isn't me.' But I definitely felt his pain."

Hayes felt plenty of pain and anguish against the Patriots three years ago. Wide receiver Troy Brown put the Pats in front to stay in the first quarter by returning a punt 55 yards for the game's first touchdown. Then in the third quarter with the Steelers trying to chip away at a 14-3 deficit, defensive lineman Brian Mitchell blocked Kris Brown's 34-yard field goal. After recovering the block, Troy Brown pitched the football to defensive back Antwan Harris, who raced 49 yards for a touchdown.

Instead of the Steelers closing the gap to 14-6, the Patriots expanded their lead to 21-3. The Steelers' Super Bowl hopes were all but dashed.A few days later, Hayes was fired. And a few days after that, the Steelers hired Spencer. "You did have to remind me of that, didn't you?" said linebacker Clark Haggans, who was on the field for Troy Brown's punt return three years ago. "I'd like to put those ugly memories in a bottle, put on the cap and then throw it in the river."

The Steelers (16-1) can erase the horrible memories of that loss by beating the Patriots (15-2) tonight in the AFC Championship Game. Obviously, solid play by the special teams will go a long way in helping the Steelers win.

"I wasn't here then. So there's no sense even talking about that game. That was the 2001 season," said linebacker Clint Kriewaldt, one of the Steelers' special teams co-captains. "This is a whole different team. I know that game hasn't even crossed anyone's mind."

While that may be true, memories of those special teams mistakes against the Patriots resurfaced last week when the Steelers needed overtime to beat the New York Jets, 20-17. In that playoff game at Heinz Field, Jets wide receiver Santana Moss toss returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown.

It was the second special teams touchdown allowed by the Steelers in less than a month. In a Dec. 18 win over the New York Giants, Willie Ponder returned the opening kickoff 91 yards.

"If there's a trend there, it has to stop," said wide receiver Sean Morey, one of the Steelers' top special teamers. "Those are critical mistakes. Shoot, that stuff hurts," Spencer said." Our coverage has been good most of the season. But obviously, it stings when something like that happens. It just gets the other team jacked up and takes the wind out of our sails. Plays like that change momentum. We just can't allow that to happen."

Since Heinz Field opened in 2001, four playoff games have been hosted on the North Shore. In each of those four games, someone has returned a punt for a touchdown.

Baltimore's Jermaine Lewis returned a punt 88 yards in a 2001 AFC Divisional Playoff game won by the Steelers, 27-10.

A week later, Troy Brown went 55 yards in the AFC title game.

In a 2002 wild-card game, Pittsburgh's Antwaan Randle El returned a punt 66 yards in a 36-33 win over the Cleveland Browns.

Then last week, Moss scored for the Jets."We always say we want to be an asset rather than a liability," Kriewaldt said. "So it's up to us to make big plays on the special teams, and not give them up."

©Beaver County Times Allegheny Times 2005

Ed Bouchette: Sense of Deja Vu Prevails Over Game

Sunday, January 23, 2005
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Related Articles:
Today's opponent: The man named Brady
Psyche of city hanging in the balance tonight
If You Go: Game-day information
Five things to look for today: 1/23/05
By the numbers: Dee-fense
Game Day Weather: Hour-by-hour forecasts for Pittsburgh
Steelers Nation / Fan photos from around the world
Black & Gold Gatherings Sites for Out-of-Town Fans

The New England Patriots find themselves today on the doorstep to sports history, where they can take one giant step toward embedding themselves among the NFL's compact dynasties in an era regulated against such things.

The Steelers, who helped to foster the word dynasty in pro football 30 years ago, will try to avert another in a string of recent failures in AFC championship home games.

The Patriots and Steelers, two teams that look and talk alike, will play for the right to separate and advance to Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville, Fla., when they kick off at 6:30 p.m. at Heinz Field.

"Just cherish the opportunity," Steelers receiver Plaxico Burress said. "It really doesn't come around too often."

On the contrary, it's come around and around for both teams, with conflicting results.

This will be the fifth AFC championship game for the Steelers, all at home, in the past 11 seasons. It will be the third title game for the Patriots in the past four years.

The difference is that the Steelers lost all but one of their previous title games and last won a Super Bowl 25 years ago. The Patriots won two of the past three Super Bowls and can become only the second franchise in the game's history to win three out of four. That would be three months after the Boston Red Sox won their first championship in 86 years.

The Steelers have been here before, at home in a championship game. They lost after the seasons of 1994, 1997 and 2001, the last when they were 10-point favorites to beat the Patriots in Heinz Field.

"I think every game has been a pretty good football game," coach Bill Cowher said. "We have just been coming out on the short end more times than not. I think each game has had its own identity."

Cowher answered questions about those losses all week. He cited one play from each game that made a difference in the outcome.

"What did I learn from that?" Cowher asked. "Game of football. It comes down sometimes to making plays. We were prepared in each one of those games. We had opportunities in each one of those games, and the other team won. They made more plays than we did.

"This game we're playing Sunday night is two good football teams, and it's going to come down to execution. It's going to come down to making plays. Whoever makes more will move on. The other one will sit back and reflect."

The Steelers are tired of reflecting, of wondering what if? The road to the Super Bowl has gone through Pittsburgh too many times without the Steelers climbing into the driver's seat. Most players from their last championship team are in their 50s now. Their starting quarterback today was born two years after the Steelers beat the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl XIV in Pasadena, Calif.

If they lose to New England today, the Steelers would be linked to the Patriots the way the Houston Oilers are linked to the Steelers of the late '70s -- stepping stones to the Super Bowl.
"Please don't ask me that," wide receiver Antwaan Randle El said. "It's not even a thought."


These Steelers, for the most part, know only about their loss to New England in the championship game at Heinz Field three years ago. Only four players on their roster were here either in 1994 or 1997, when they also lost AFC title games at home.

These Steelers won 15 games in the regular season, something no other Steelers team accomplished, nor any other AFC team, for that matter. They've won 15 in a row, including their Doug Brien-gifted playoff victory against the Jets last week.

No less than Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham, a key member of the Steel Curtain defense that forged four Super Bowl victories, proposed that these Steelers will go down as the best team in franchise history -- for one season, anyway -- if they stretch their streak to 17 and win the Super Bowl.

"For whatever reason, it's been a special year for us," receiver Hines Ward said. "Going through a season just losing one game, what better way than to ride all the way out and go all the way to the Super Bowl?"

To do that, the Steelers believe they must run effectively against the Patriots today, not surprising since they followed that script all season. They ran 61 percent of the time during their 15-1 regular season. That helped keep the pressure off rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and also helped keep their defense off the field. The Steelers led the league in time of possession with a 34-minute average.

"I'd be disappointed if we don't have 40 carries as a team," Jerome Bettis said. "If we don't have 40 carries, then it's tough for us to go out there and be dominant and try to win the football game."

The Patriots feel the same way. Like the Steelers, they play a tough, confusing 3-4 defense that finished in a tie for second in points allowed, right behind the Steelers. New England likes to run and control the clock, and the Patriots overcame key injuries to get here.

They are close to mirror images.

"Close, close," Steelers guard Alan Faneca said. "They may not be the same mirror, but they're mirrors."
As Cowher said, the loser will have time to reflect.

(Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3878.)

Ron Cook: Staley Not Lacking Motivation

Sunday, January 23, 2005
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Duce Staley picked a curious word to describe his empty feeling after his Philadelphia Eagles were beaten in each of the past three NFC championship games.

"Heartbreaking."

Almost the instant Staley said it, he knew he had made a bad choice. You know how you sometimes say something and wish you could reach out and pull the words back?
Disappointing would have been the right word for Staley. Of course it's disappointing to work so hard and come so close to the Super Bowl only to fall a step short.

Even motivating would have worked. If you lose three conference championships games in a row and then are lucky enough to get a fourth try the next season, as Staley will tonight with the Steelers against the New England Patriots at Heinz Field, you're going to do everything you can not to come up short again.

But heartbreaking? There is nothing heartbreaking about losing a football game, as least not in a real-world sense. Heartbreaking is being told you are dying of cancer. You think time flies? Try sitting down with a doctor and being told you have six to 12 months to live, as Staley's father, Lanny, was late last year. Now that's heartbreaking.
"It's been real hard," Staley said last week.

His father is just 53. He thought he was having minor stomach trouble when he went to his doctors in November and complained of his food not digesting. They told him he had stomach and pancreatic cancer.

Staley left the Steelers for a few days in early December to go to Columbia, S.C., to be by his father's side. But what do you say to someone in that situation? There are no appropriate words.
What's important to Staley is that he was there for his dad. For years, they had been estranged after Staley's parents divorced when he was, to use his words, "a short one." Like most divorces, this one rocked Staley and his two siblings.

"You see your father leave, and your first reaction is to blame everything on your mother because she's the one you're with," Staley said. "You're not old enough to know what's going on or to ask the questions that you'll ask later. All you're thinking about is how different things would have been if your dad had stayed."

It didn't take long for Staley to make peace with his mother, Tena. As a single mother, she gave him a chance to succeed not just in football, but also in life, often at great personal sacrifice. "She's my hero," Staley said.

It took a lot longer for Staley's relationship with his father to thaw. They talked over the years but were hardly close. It wasn't until after Lanny was diagnosed with his cancer that they became, well, father and son.

Do you know how important that closure must be to the Staleys? What father wants to go to his grave with a grudge between him and his son? What son wants that?

"I'm thankful things are better between us," Staley said.

You might guess what the two talked about most last week.

"Us winning has definitely pushed him along through all of this," Staley said. "It's a positive energy for him."
It's also a powerful motivator for Staley.

"None of us know how long we're going to live. Not me, not you, not anyone," he said.

"But now? After his cancer? I can't be sure when he's going to take his last breath or when I'll talk to him for the last time or which of my games will be his last game. That's why I'd love to get him to the Super Bowl. Jacksonville is only five hours from Columbia. He could make that trip. That would be huge for both of us."

It's not as if Staley needed the extra motivation. Losses in those three NFC title games provided plenty. As he told the Philadelphia media last season, he's "trying not to be the Buffalo Bills of the playoffs."

Staley's friend and teammate Jerome Bettis can relate. He lost with the Steelers in the AFC championship games after the 2001 and 1997 seasons. The two swapped their frustrating stories last week.

"I told Duce, 'We've got a chance to do it again,' " Bettis said. "We've got another chance to make it right ...

"Duce thinks this is his best opportunity."

"The atmosphere is different here, for one," Staley said.

There's not the stifling pressure there is in Philadelphia. It suffocated the Eagles a year ago when they lost at home to the Carolina Panthers. It wouldn't shock anyone if it suffocates them again today against the Atlanta Falcons in yet another NFC title game at home.

"The guys are more confident here," Staley said. "There's a laid-back attitude, yet everyone is ready to take care of business. This is a better situation for me. I'm more comfortable here."
Staley and Bettis were huge when the Steelers beat the Patriots Halloween Night. Staley started and ran for 125 yards on 25 carries. Bettis finished after Staley's hamstring was injured in the second half, rushing for 65 yards on 15 carries.

The roles will be reversed tonight. Bettis has run for at least 100 yards in each of his seven starts. Staley will play, although his hamstring still isn't right. "I'm nowhere near where I was earlier in the season."

This is just a guess, but the Patriots probably aren't buying that after watching Staley against the New York Jets last weekend. He stepped in for Bettis, out with leg cramps in overtime, and had six carries for 28 yards on the winning field-goal drive.

"I'm blessed," Staley said. "Even though I'm hurt, I can still go out and make plays to help the team win."

The Steelers still are playing in no small part because of Staley's and Bettis' ability to co-exist. Bettis, the ultimate team man, deserves much of the credit, taking a steep pay cut and willingly stepping aside after the Steelers signed Staley to a five-year, $14 million deal in the offseason. But Staley also deserves credit, especially now that he's the backup.

Maybe he appreciated Bettis' grace and learned from it; he had been pushed aside in Philadelphia last season to make room for Brian Westbrook and Correll Buckhalter and didn't like it.

Or maybe it's just that Staley, too, is a terrific team player.

"I think it's important," Staley said. "We're two competitive guys, two guys who both want the ball. If the other guys see Duce and Jerome working it out, they're not going to let any of their issues stop us ...

"I think it shows that our relationship is genuine. It's not like we said, 'We're going to be friends and everything will be OK this season, then we'll go our separate ways.' We're more than that. We're going to be friends for life."

And, dare they dream it, Super Bowl champions together?
Surely, you'll forgive Staley's father if he has spent some of his precious time thinking just that thought.

"He told me he was praying for me," Staley said. "He also said he'd see me at the Super Bowl."
There's only one word to describe that kind of father-and-son meeting:
Priceless.

(Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.)

Saturday, January 22, 2005

AP- Pa. in a Frenzy Over Steelers, Eagles

1/22/2005, 1:31 p.m. ET
By ALAN ROBINSON The Associated Press

PITTSBURGH (AP) — In Pennsylvania, either you're an Eagles fan or a Steelers fan — not both. This year, however, the road to the Super Bowl in Jacksonville runs along the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Twirl a Steelers Terrible Towel east of state capitol Harrisburg, and you're liable to get it wrapped around your neck. Wear a green No. 5 Donovan McNabb jersey west of State College, and you risk being doused with a Rolling Rock.
This clash of styles and loyalties comes to a head Sunday when two NFL conference championship games will be played in the same state on the same day, with kickoffs 3 1/2 hours apart.

This is the first time a state has hosted both conference title games in the same season, and it's fitting that it's happening in Pennsylvania, the site of the acknowledged first pro football game (in Pittsburgh) 113 years ago and a hotbed for the sport almost ever since.

Ordinarily, this would be a tricky political football for most constituent-conscious governors, but not Pennsylvania's Ed Rendell.
The former Philadelphia mayor will do what he always does on a football Sunday — watch the Eagles, cheer wildly, then appear on Comcast SportsNet's postgame show and offer analysis, this time for the Falcons-Eagles NFC championship game.

On the opposite side of the state, the Steelers will face the New England Patriots for the AFC championship, but Pittsburghers must be content with the governor's well wishes — though he attended last weekend's Jets-Steelers game. Rendell is firmly sided with the Eagles, and will stay that way even if the two Keystone State teams face off in the Super Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 6.

Politics is important to Rendell, but this is football, and there is nothing politically correct about football.
"If I really felt it was important to the outcome of the game or important to the emotional psyche of the people of the Pittsburgh area ... I would go," he said. "But I don't have that inflated opinion of myself."

Plus he's an Eagles fan, and that's that. There is no middle ground in this state of frenzy.
Bridget Healy, 33, of suburban McCandless Township is superstitious beyond reason. She dons a Terrible Towel atop her head for every game — wearing it forward when the Steelers have the ball, backward when they're on defense, crocheting wildly all the while to calm her nerves.
"I can take it off (only) on commercials and at halftime," she said.

Of course, the fan bases for both teams extend far beyond the commonwealth's border — especially that of the Steelers, whose national identity has rivaled that of the Packers and Cowboys since they won four Super Bowls in six years during the 1974-79 seasons. Steelers rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's No. 7 jersey is the NFL's top seller worldwide, and there are far more Steelers-related items for sale on eBay than for any other team.
"That's what's great about playing with the Steelers — wherever you go, you kind of feel like you're playing at home," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said.

Visiting teams certainly don't feel that way in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia. Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper complained some rambunctious Philly fans harassed family members and spit on them during the Eagles' 27-14 divisional playoff victory last Sunday.

"The hysteria among the two cities is pretty equal," said Steelers wide receiver Sean Morey, who played for Philadelphia from 2001-03. "They live and die with their teams. In Pittsburgh they bleed gold and black and in Philadelphia they bleed green. It's actually kind of a treat to be in situations in my career where I've played on teams where the fans care so much."

Steelers and Eagles fans are considered among the most loyal and knowledgeable, as the players soon realize. Roethlisberger, whose 14-0 record is unprecedented for a rookie quarterback, was taken aback during one of his initial Pittsburgh shopping trips when fans came up offering unsolicited advice.
"There are Steelers fans everywhere," Roethlisberger said. "Hopefully, we can continue to impress them and keep them on our side."

Good idea in Pennsylvania, where all this fervency has created perceptible angst. The Eagles have lost three consecutive NFC title games, the last two at home, and their fans — confident as they are — dread the thought of another loss for a franchise that last won an NFL championship in 1960.

"I would say it's one of the most hostile environments I think a player can play in because the fans are rude as hell, the crowd is definitely behind their Eagles and it's just a situation where it's you against them," Falcons running back Warrick Dunn said. "No disrespect to our fans, but the fans in Philly are a little bit different."

There's a similar feeling in Pittsburgh, which last celebrated a Super Bowl victory 25 years ago. This is the fifth time since 1995 the Steelers have hosted the AFC title game, but they won only one of the previous four.

No wonder Bill Cowher, the most tenured of current NFL coaches in his 13th season, doesn't talk about winning One for the Thumb — the Steelers' rallying cry since they first began looking for a fifth Super Bowl title after the 1979 season.
"I'm looking for any finger, personally," he said, displaying a right hand barren of jewelry. "They're all open."

Until one of its teams wins the Super Bowl, Pennsylvania can be called the state of anxiety. And, even if it happens, only part of the state will be pleased.
"There's a similar sense of urgency in both cities," Morey said.

Passion of the Safety


In just his second season in the NFL, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was named to the AFC Pro Bowl team. Polamalu led the Steelers in inteceptions with six and was second in tackles with 101.

Chris Harlan - Beaver County Times Sports Staff
01/21/2005

PITTSBURGH - Troy Polamalu freely admits he's not your typical professional football player, more interested in growing flowers than buying sports utility vehicles. And the 23-year-old is perfectly fine with that.

He's arguably the Steelers most-vicious hitter on the field, and without doubt the most polite player off it. How does he reconcile the two? Polamalu points squarely to his Samoan heritage and, more importantly, his religious faith.

"I try to play with the passion I feel I've lived my life with," he said. "... I think that you have to play like that as a Christian. I think God calls upon Christian football players to play with passion, just like the life you live."When he levels a receiver, well, that's his way of giving thanks.

Polamalu says his beliefs and performance are intertwined. As his faith has grown, he says, so have his football skills. While living in California, he attended the Assembly of God in Orange County; sometimes four or five times a week. He says he never watched much football on television, so he never really watched how a strong safety was supposed to play. His talents are instinctual. His talents are God-given. "As time progressed, my faith grew stronger (and) my confidence grew stronger," Polamalu said. "All of them are pretty much correlated. God blessed me. (Allowing me) to be very successful (at football), and for (athletic success) to be correlated to my faith."

Now only in his second season, Polamalu is considered one of the league's best safeties, earning one of two available strong safety spots on the conference's Pro Bowl team. Only Baltimore's Ed Reed, the league's defensive player of the year, had more interceptions. He took the other Pro Bowl spot.

Rodney Harrison, bumped off the Pro Bowl team by Polamalu, will start at strong safety for the New England Patriots during Sunday's AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field. He said this week he felt slighted. That he, an 11-year veteran, should have made next month's all-star game in Hawaii.

Did he expect that to rile the soft-spoken Steeler?

"I'm not really into reading papers or reading what they're saying about us," Polamalu said. "I think the game speaks for itself."

Polamalu is second on the Steelers with 101 tackles and leads with five interceptions since winning the starting spot this summer. He stepped in front of a Chad Pennington pass during last Sunday's playoff victory over the New York Jets, setting up the Steelers' first touchdown.They'll need another outstanding day Sunday. Polamalu will again miss a service at the church he found here in Pittsburgh but hopes to show everyone how much he's been blessed.

"(My faith) has everything to do with my performance," he said. "Whether it's good or bad, it definitely motivates me to go out and glorify God. It's pretty much all I say to myself throughout every play, before every game. Whether win or loss, I'm definitely going to give the same effort out there."

His teammates describe a humble person who's focused, serious and always in bed early. His road-trip roommate, Ike Taylor, says Polamalu's two favorite things are "to eat fruit" and "go to sleep early." But free safety Chris Hope says there's more to his teammate's personality than the public sees."He's a little sneaky," Hope said. "He's quiet but he does a lot of joke-cracking and little pranks. He does them on the low-low. I guess, if he feels comfortable with you, that's when he opens up to you. Me and him laugh and play all the time. A lot of people don't see that because he's a serious closed-in person."

Polamalu thanks reporters who notice his good plays. He apologizes when asking someone to move so he can get to his locker. And he delivers lines with a dry wit that often fools.

Where did he meet his fiancé? "I met her at my draft party," Polamalu says, then starts laughing. "I kill people with that one."

Well, maybe not everyone.Actually, his fiancé is the sister of a former teammate at the University of Southern California. Polamalu was a two-time all-American for the Trojans before becoming the Steelers first-round draft pick before last season.

Was Theodora Holmes impressed? Not really. According to Polamalu, his girlfriend of four years doesn't really like football. And, to him, that's important.

Football isn't his only focus. He thought about becoming a history teacher."I do share different passions, you know: woodworking, flowers," he said, seemingly the beginning of another one of his jokes. This time, though, there's no punch line. "I've started getting into orchids and trying to learn how to cultivate orchids. Wine. Trying to learn how to grow wine. Different things like that. Which, I guess, isn't your stereotypical football player but different things interest me."

While teammates were arriving at training camp in Hummers and Escalades, Polamalu arrived in a Kia: sticker price $12,000. He insists he's not interested in showing off the millions the Steelers invested in him two Aprils ago.

Since then the Steelers have built their strong safety's role to fit Polamalu's instinctual ability; often pulling the 5-foot-10, 212-pounder forward for run-stopping. Typically, his pass-coverage responsibilities are minimal. Basically, just make the play.

Coming out of college, his critics said he couldn't cover receivers down field. But, after Sunday's game, defensive coach Dick LeBeau, a former cornerback himself, said Polamalu could move to cornerback now if needed."Actually I just stepped on the scale a few minutes ago and was just saying, 'Man, I need to lose some weight so I can play some more man-to-man (defense),'" Polamalu said. "That's definitely a great compliment considering the things that were said about me coming into the NFL."

With his long hair draped out the back of his helmet, he's easily recognizable and has grabbed national attention. The hair, though, has no special meaning; he says he stopped cutting it while in college and just hasn't since - even though he's had it pulled a couple times. But his future mother-in-law, of Greek decent, says it helps him look strong."My fiancé's mother told me that every great warrior, throughout all of the world's history has had long hair," Polamalu said. "Starting with the samurais, the Greeks, the American Indians, the Chinese, you name it, they've all had long hair. I don't know why it's so different nowadays to have long hair."Not that Polamalu has ever been worried with what everyone else is doing.

Chris Harlan can be reached online at charlan@timesonline.com.
©Beaver County Times Allegheny Times 2005

Farrior Hitting on all Cylinders

Pittsburgh's Farrior Hitting on All Cylinders
By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 22, 2005; Page D01

PITTSBURGH, Jan. 21 -- When James Farrior was a senior at Matoaca High School just south of Richmond in 1993, he had narrowed his college choices to Virginia and Penn State. Late in the recruiting process, then-Virginia assistant coach Bob Petchel, assigned to land Farrior, asked him one day where he would be the following Friday at 8 a.m. because he was planning a surprise for him.

Farrior told him he'd be at school -- where else? -- and Petchel, a former assistant at Penn State, took care of the rest. On the appointed Friday, he arranged to have virtually every member of the Virginia coaching staff, with the exception of then-head coach George Welsh, show up at Farrior's high school to tell him how much they wanted him to come to Charlottesville.

"He walked into the room we were in and started laughing, saying 'I can't believe you did this,' " Petchel, now a U-Va. fundraiser, recalled this week. "I knew the coach at Penn State who was recruiting him and before we left, I told [Farrior] to tell him what we'd just done and to ask him if Penn State would ever get all their coaches to drive down to talk with him. I think he got the message that we wanted him real bad."

Farrior laughed this week when reminded of that story and recalled that Welsh came to his house for a recruiting visit. "My little brother drew this really awful picture of him with a square jaw and a very big nose and ears," he said.

Still, Farrior signed to play at Virginia, where he was a three-year starter, played on an ACC championship team his junior year and graduated with a degree in psychology in four years. He was a first-round draft pick by the New York Jets, and on Sunday will line up at inside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers when they face the New England Patriots for the AFC championship and perhaps his first trip to the Super Bowl.

Farrior also has made plane reservations for Hawaii the week after the Super Bowl and his first appearance in the Pro Bowl. He'll be a starter for the AFC team following a spectacular season in which his Steelers teammates almost unanimously voted him their most valuable player. Only Farrior himself cast a vote for someone else -- he voted for running back Jerome Bettis. Farrior was runner-up to Baltimore safety Ed Reed as the NFL's defensive MVP, no trifling accomplishment for an athlete who has been called "Potsie" ever since he had a potbelly as a child.

That has long since disappeared from his 6-foot-2, 243-pound frame. In his eighth season in the league, Farrior led the Steelers in regular season tackles with 119, had three sacks, four interceptions, three recovered fumbles and four forced fumbles.

"Any time we need a play, he steps in and makes it," said linebacker Clark Haggans. "He beats the rest of the defense to it."

"I've really enjoyed this season," Farrior said. "I'd like to think I can play better, but it's been a progression for me my whole career. The longer I've played, the better I've gotten. It was just maturation, learning how to play. I guess you could say it took awhile, but I feel very comfortable now in this system, and we all know what our roles are in this defense."

Farrior struggled in his five seasons with the Jets, including three years when Patriots Coach Bill Belichick was his defensive coordinator and Bill Parcells was the head coach. He says now that Belichick was one of the best coaches he ever worked with "and I enjoyed playing for him. He helped me a lot, he was always giving us pointers and tips. The best thing I got from him was play hard every play, never take a snap off."

Farrior began as an outside linebacker in the Jets' 4-3 defense, then played weak-side linebacker when the Jets switched to a 3-4. After the 2001 season, the Jets signed Sam Cowart to play Farrior's position and allowed him to leave as a free agent, a decision they have since come to regret. Farrior has been a perfect fit with the Steelers, who also use a 3-4.

"I told James after we played the Steelers in December that of all the people we've lost since we've been here, he's the one I wish I had back," Jets General Manager Terry Bradway said. "We have pretty good linebackers here, but the way he's played and the kind of guy he is, we know we lost a great one."

The Steelers know the difference Farrior has made.

"He is just a very athletic linebacker who can cover any running back in the league, a for-sure tackler and big hitter," safety Chris Hope said. "When teams try to spread us out to get mismatches, Potsie takes the back, and the back is covered, just covered. He's a great guy, not a big boasting kind of guy, but someone you can always depend on. If everyone is laughing, he's laughing. He's quiet, yeah, but he's for real."

On Sunday, wherever New England running back Corey Dillon goes, with or without the ball, Farrior surely will be close at hand. Dillon did not play in the teams' last game, a 34-20 Pittsburgh victory on Oct. 31, but Farrior has spent a good portion of the week studying film on the Patriots' 225-pound running back and has an idea of what sort of evening it will be.

"He adds another dimension to that offense," Farrior said. "With them having a running game, I'm sure they'll try to pound it at us. We'll have to play things a little different than last time. He's an impressive back, and we'll have to get more than one guy on him. I think we all know what we have to do."

Snow or Not, Bus Running


BY DARREN EVERSON
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER

Jerome Bettis plans to drive Steeler attack in bad weather.

PITTSBURGH - The forecast for tomorrow's AFC Championship Game is not pretty. Ninety percent chance of snow. Six to 12 inches possible. Stiff, steady winds. Low, sub-freezing temperatures.

Roads will be slick. Flights might get canceled.

The Bus, however, will run on schedule.

"The worse, probably the better for me," said Jerome Bettis, the Steelers' 255-pound battering ram, "because I know where I'm going."

So does everyone else, of course, but that doesn't mean anyone can stop him.

As the Steelers prepare for the Patriots - led once again by Bettis, who in his 12th NFL season is having a renaissance - it seems the only thing that can stop their longtime back is doubt - either on the part of Pittsburgh, which acquired Duce Staley last offseason only to hand the offense back to Bettis, or Bettis himself.

He spoke of retirement yesterday, as he stood two victories away from the first Super Bowl championship that he lacks and covets. He said he'll think about it after the season, but that his initial inclination was to retire if the Steelers wind up winning it all.

"(Howie Long) asked me that question, that if I won a championship, would I retire," Bettis said. "I said, 'You know what? Yeah, probably. The job is complete.'

"But he said, 'Well, I'll give you a piece of advice: Think about it. Because I know the way that you play, you love the game. Make a decision based on your love of the game and don't base it on winning or losing.' When he said that, it really struck a chord, so I'll have to think about that. What I'll do is, after the season is over, see how my body feels and let my body determine whether I come back."

It's not easy being the Bus. Bettis has the third-most carries in NFL history (3,369), behind Emmitt Smith and Walter Payton. But those running backs had the speed and shiftiness to slip a hit here and there.

Not Bettis. Of the top 10 all-time rushers by yardage, a list on which Bettis ranks fifth (13,294), the Bus has the lowest yards per carry of the group (3.9).

He thrives on collisions, on contact. Twelve years of it adds up.

"It's tough," Bettis said. "I deal with it. The love of the game and the opportunity to play for a championship is what drives me, what keeps me going and what gets me out of bed in the morning. It's what keeps me dealing with pain. But the pain that I have to deal with just going out there to practice, it's tough."

Getting out of bed tomorrow, though, shouldn't be a problem. Coach Bill Cowher said earlier this week that Bettis, who rushed for 101 yards last week in the victory over the Jets - his seventh 100-yard game in seven starts - likely would start again over Staley, although Staley - who rushed 11 times for 54 yards in his second game back from a hamstring injury - should get increased work.

Bettis' two previous AFC title games were Steeler losses, but tomorrow could be different, especially because of the weather. Although it is expected to stop snowing by gametime, the footing might be poor.

That's fine by the Bus. "I'm a mudder," he said. "A fast track doesn't really do much for me."

Originally published on January 22, 2005