Not only did Steelers fans love Jerome Bettis, they still love Jerome Bettis. Since his retirement following the Steelers Super Bowl victory in 2005, fans of the black and gold haven't forgotten about the Bus.
In fact, they've attempted to honor him by expressing frustration with the Steelers' relative lack of a power running game the last few seasons. One of the most common things you'll hear come out the mouth of a Steelers fan is that "we need another Bus."
While I understand fully where they are coming from and their sense of nostalgia towards rooting for one of the best power running backs in NFL history, I can't help but notice the irony of it all.
In routinely claiming that the Steelers "need another Bus," Steelers fans are actually disrespecting the same player that they so passionately loved to watch. What they really need to get through their heads, however, is that there's no such thing as another Bus. It’s just an artificial construction that they themselves created in frustration.
In expressing these sentiments, all Steelers fans are really doing is unintentionally trivializing how unique and special of a player Bettis really was. If a fan really has a great deal of respect for a player, then what sense does it make for them to expect that same player to be easily replaced within a few short years after he’s gone?
For a number of reasons, Bettis was a once in a lifetime running back. Sure, there are several really good power running backs in the league right now on other teams, just like there are several really good power running backs that will be drafted into the NFL in the coming years.
That does not mean that there are any Jerome Bettis-caliber running backs in the league right now, and it also does not mean that the Steelers have had any sort of opportunity to adequately replace Bettis since his retirement.
The Steelers' best shot at a replacement for Bettis right now is Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall is coming off of offseason ACL surgery and could reemerge in the starting lineup in the coming weeks.
No one has had a greater influence on the way fans view Mendenhall than Jerome Bettis has. Through no fault of his own, the memory of Bettis has been a curse to the reputation of Mendenhall amongst Steelers diehards longing for the next Bus to come along.
Perhaps there is no better example of this than the reaction from many Steelers fans when Mendenhall tore his ACL in Week 16 against the Browns last season.
Despite the fact that Mendenhall had rushed for over 1,000 yards the previous two seasons and was on pace to do so once again before his injury, Steelers fans and media members somehow remained ambivalent about the impact of the injury on their team.
No one with any sort of conscience ever likes to see any player get hurt. Still, many Steelers fans and media members were expressively excited about the prospect of Isaac Redman, a seventh-round pick of the 2011 draft with very limited experience, playing a much larger role in the offense. Why?
Mendenhall was the Steelers' highly touted first-round pick of the 2008 NFL draft. After losing the majority of his rookie campaign to injury, Mendenhall had three solid seasons in 2009, 2010 and 2011. In that time, the former Illinois star rushed for 3,309 yards and 29 touchdowns on 4.1 yards per carry.
While these aren’t elite numbers by any stretch, it’s also important to remember that Mendenhall did all of this without a very good run-blocking offensive line. In fact, the Steelers offensive line hasn’t really been the same ever since around the time Bettis retired and Alan Faneca signed with the Jets.
To be fair, Mendenhall has never had as good a run-blocking offensive line to run behind as Bettis did in his prime, something fans often times lose sight of in their criticism of Mendenhall and other post-Bettis Steeler backs.
What really seems to get under the skin of Steelers fans and media members most about Mendenhall is his running style. Forget the numbers. They want to see a power running back in the starting lineup.
When I look at Mendenhall I see a running back that’s incredibly elusive once he gets in the open field, but when Steelers fans and media members look at Mendenhall they see a running back that “dances too much.”
While I understand that there are always those that see the glass half full and always those that see the glass half empty, what really bothers me is the stubbornness of some Steelers fans. One of the ironies of the style criticism is that one of the main attributes that made Bettis great, other than his sheer power and will, was his elusiveness and quick feet.
Yet since they don’t like his running style, many of them simply can’t get behind Mendenhall no matter how effective he is at times. It’s similar to the way certain old-school Steelers fans can’t seem to get behind a Ben Roethlisberger-led, passing-orientated offense because it contrasts with the Steelers they grew up with.
It would, of course, be foolish to say that Steelers fans and media members are wrong in all of their Mendenhall criticisms. He has not performed to the level many fans expected of him when he was drafted with the 23rd overall pick. My argument is that that level was unrealistic to begin with.
Mendenhall was an extremely talented player coming out of Illinois, but there were realistic question marks about him going into the draft. It was a good pick by the Steelers at the time and Mendenhall has panned out reasonably well, but there was no reason for Steelers fans to assume that he was the second coming of the Bus.
A lot of the criticisms Steelers fans and media members frequently have with Mendenhall do have a degree of validity. Mendenhall has danced too much in the backfield at times. He has lost yardage when he could have just put his head down and picked up a few tough yards on countless occasions.
Yet it’s short-sighted to not also realize that his running style has frequently paid off for him. He’s not the Bus, but he does finish runs well and he’s been relatively durable thus far in his career.
After Mendenhall went down last season, Redman played very well in relief. He was more of a bruising type of back, and showed the ability to hit the hole with urgency in the playoff game against the Broncos. For a brief moment, Redman looked like the Bus to overenthusiastic Steelers fans, and they loved it.
In the offseason, some fans came off as indifferent to Mendenhall’s recovery, instead choosing to focus their excitement on the prospects of the Steelers new found power running game. If the Steelers' first two games of the season have showed us anything, it’s that Steelers fans need to be careful what they wish for.
Yes, Redman is the more powerful back than Mendenhall, but he has looked indecisive and unsure of himself since assuming the starting role. Redman is no Mendenhall, and in all likelihood neither is Jonathan Dwyer. Thinking that Redman was going to be on par or better than Mendenhall was almost as naïve as thinking that Mendenhall was the second-coming of the Bus.
In the absence of an effective running back, Ben Roethlisberger has assumed a greater role in the direction of the offense. Roethlisberger’s off to a good start in the 2012 season, but make no mistake about it: The Steelers desperately need to establish a more effective running game.
Todd Haley has certainly tried to establish one, but for all his best efforts, the Steelers have only rushed for 141 yards on 54 carries, ranking them 30th in the league in rushing.
Of course improving the running game will always help create a more balanced offense and close games out, but there is another very important reason the Steelers need to improve on the ground.
For the Steelers to have any chance to win a Super Bowl this season they need Ben Roethlisberger to stay healthy, something he wasn’t able to do last season. And one of the best ways to keep him healthy is through rushing the football effectively, taking the pressure off of him to throw the ball 40 plus times every single game.
As long as Rashard Mendenhall is on the bench, the hones will stay on Roethlisberger to beat teams through the air. The more Roethlisberger has to throw the ball, the more hits he’s bound to take, and the greater likelihood he has of getting injured.
Both Steelers fans and media members need to wake up and start accepting Mendenhall for what he is rather than wish he was something he’s not. He may never be the Bus, but his team needs him now more than ever.