In one way, Saturday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame event at New York’s Radio City Music Hall was a real breakthrough moment.
After decades of waiting, former Raiders punter Ray Guy will finally have his day in Canton, as he was among seven NFL greats to have their names called this weekend by the Hall of Fame.
It never made much sense that the man universally deemed to be the father of modern punting and certainly one of the all-time best at his position wasn’t enshrined, but the veterans committee righted that wrong Saturday night.
Some may dispute the need to have a punter in the Hall of Fame, but it’s a position that’s been around as long as the game itself, so why exclude a seven-time Pro Bowler who even has a college football award named after him?
Luckily, we won’t have to worry about anti-punter discrimination this summer, but there’s another troubling question that comes to mind: What do the Hall of Fame voters have against Pittsburgh Steelers legend Jerome Bettis?
Bettis, who remains in sixth place on the NFL’s career rushing list with 13,662 yards, was passed over for Hall induction despite making the shortlist of finalists for the fourth straight year. As I mentioned Saturday, no running backs were among the Canton class of 2014, so it’s not like Bettis’ votes were stolen by a superior rusher.
No, it seems that the Hall of Fame committee isn’t all that impressed by Bettis’ achievements over a 13-year career, during which he established himself as one of the premier “big backs” in league history. Really, for the amount of punishment he took while wearing the colors of the Rams (three years) and the Steelers (10), it’s amazing he stayed active as long as he did.
Bettis roared out of the gate in his pro career, capturing the 1993 offensive rookie of the year award with Los Angeles following a star turn at Notre Dame. His yards per carry average of 4.9 in his first NFL season was his all-time best, although he came close in 1996 (4.5), 1997 (4.4) and 2001 (4.8). Bettis’ career mark of 3.9 yards per rush has been cited as a major reason for his tepid reception from the Hall of Fame, but those who focus on that are missing the point.
Much like Guy, Bettis filled a role admirably, that of a truck-like backfield bruiser. Until Ben Roethlisberger showed up in the final two years of Bettis’ career, the Detroit native carried a Steelers offense quarterbacked by mediocrities like Kordell Stewart, Kent Graham and Tommy Maddox.
Often facing eight-man defensive fronts, Bettis still found a way to break off chunks of yardage, move the chains and kill the clock, which was Pittsburgh’s formula for success from the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s. With Bettis in town, the Steelers made the playoffs six times in 10 seasons, reaching three AFC championship games and winning one Super Bowl.
Bettis was certainly not Barry Sanders, although his surprisingly nifty footwork gave him an elusiveness not often seen in a 240-pound athlete. Bettis had a different look than many of the NFL’s backfield greats, but that doesn’t make him any less of a standout in his era. Few players could make something out of nothing, whether with sheer strength or a quick shuffle-step.
I’m not sure if Bettis would’ve been as effective if he came up a decade later, what with modern football more based on open-space maneuverability than power. But Bettis was one of the last of the old-school tailbacks, and he deserves to be honored as such.
To do otherwise would be a disservice to the player and the sport’s history. Here’s hoping the Hall of Fame voters realize this the fifth time around.