The Pittsburgh Steelers once again find themselves relying on Jerome Bettis.
Last season, Bettis was supposed to be a spare part as he wound down his career, having been demoted to being the Steelers' backup tailback when the club signed Duce Staley as a free agent to take over as the primary ball carrier. But Staley couldn't stay healthy all season, and Bettis was back to his old battering-ram ways as the Steelers raced to a 15-1 regular-season record and reached the AFC title game before losing at home to the New England Patriots.
Bettis, not Staley, was the Steelers' leading rusher last season, with 941 yards and 13 touchdowns. He made six starts during the regular season, and ran for at least 100 yards in each.
Now, after an offseason in which Bettis contemplated retirement but decided to return, he is left as the No. 1 tailback again, with Staley sidelined for a month after undergoing knee surgery this week. Staley could be available for the start of the regular season but even if he is, he probably won't be in shape to carry much of the workload. Much will be asked of Bettis in his 13th NFL season, and he says he has no doubts that he can shoulder the burden.
"That's not the issue," Bettis said here this week at training camp at St. Vincent College. "I know I can. The question is, at the end of the season, how will I feel? Doing it is not the issue. I've never had a problem doing it. That's something I've been doing my whole career. That's not a concern."
He spoke outside the dining hall as he prepared to jump on a bike and head off to complete a round of television interviews. There will be a broadcasting job somewhere waiting for Bettis when he retires. He nearly entered his post-playing days this summer.
"I came relatively close to not playing," he said. "It was something that I had to really, really think about. I was a little beat up last year. I was a little disappointed about how we ended the season. I was probably 60-40 toward leaving" when last season ended.
Bettis, 33, said he changed his mind in May "when my body started to come around. I said to myself, 'If my body doesn't come around, there's no way I can be out here.' I only play a certain way. At that point, I said to myself, 'If it doesn't come back, I have to walk away.' . . . It was the first time it took that long [for his body to recover from a season]. I don't know if it was the age or whatever, but it took a while. I think that was a message that, 'You're okay, but it's taking a little longer.'"
There have been training-camp concerns for the Steelers. One starting wide receiver, Plaxico Burress, departed via free agency in the offseason. The other, Hines Ward, is holding out in a contract dispute. An offensive line that was intact all of last season has two new starters. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger must cope with his new-found celebrity and find a way to duplicate last season's rookie-year magic. Linebacker Joey Porter was hurt in a pass-rushing drill this week and joined Staley on the shelf for the rest of the preseason after undergoing knee surgery. Coach Bill Cowher said he noticed how lifeless a goal-line drill during a midweek practice was, with so many of his club's best on-field trash talkers -- Porter, Ward, Staley and Bettis, who had that practice off -- not participating.
Bettis demonstrated last season, though, that finding a running-game centerpiece when Staley is sidelined is not among Cowher's concerns.
"That was definitely satisfying," Bettis said of his productivity last season. "But at the end of the year, you don't look at that. You look at your health and say, 'Man, I don't know if I can do this again.'"
The T.O. Department
Disgruntled wideout Terrell Owens and his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, made the TV rounds Thursday, and Owens intensified his criticism of the Philadelphia Eagles as the two sides' bitter contract dispute rages on. But Owens and Rosenhaus probably didn't score many points with the public, lamenting that Owens will make only about $12 million over the first two seasons of his contract with the Eagles.
Eagles officials say that Owens can play for them this season for his $3.25 million salary, or not play at all. They remain adamant that they're not going to renegotiate his seven-year, $48.97 million contract after one season and they're not going to trade or release him.
And, they say, they're not going to put up with any more distractions from Owens, like Wednesday's argument between the five-time Pro Bowl wideout and Coach Andy Reid at the club's Bethlehem, Pa., training camp that led Reid to banish Owens from the team for a week. That raises the possibility that the Eagles could pay Owens not to play for them this season. If Owens has another outburst, the Eagles could pay Owens's salary and make him inactive for games, much as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did with Keyshawn Johnson late in the 2003 season when Coach Jon Gruden called the wide receiver insubordinate.
The contract that four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law signed with the New York Jets this week could pay him as much as $4 million this season, according to a source familiar with the provisions of the deal.
Law received no signing bonus but gets a $500,000 advance Monday on his $2.5 million salary for the season. He gets the other $2 million on Sept. 15 -- unless he's placed on the injured reserve list by Sept. 10, in which case he receives only $500,000. Thus, the Jets owe Law only $1 million if he's hurt all season. He's coming off a severe foot injury that caused him to miss the second half of last season, when he was with the New England Patriots.
Law receives a $62,500 bonus for each game he's on the active roster this season (meaning he gets $1 million for being active for all 16 games), and is paid a $500,000 incentive if he participates in at least 85 percent of the Jets' defensive snaps. The Jets have an $11 million option in March that, if they exercise it, will extend Law's contract through the 2011 season. The contract is worth a maximum of about $50 million over seven seasons, including a maximum of about $28.5 million over the next three seasons . . . .
Rookie offensive tackle Alex Barron isn't endearing himself to St. Louis Rams Coach Mike Martz. Martz was upset that it took until Wednesday for Barron to agree to a contract, then was further angered when Barron didn't show up in time to participate in Thursday's practice. Martz has said that Barron has missed too much time to begin the season as a starter . . . .
The NFL's team owners met this week in Chicago, still trying to reach a revenue-sharing accord that would enable them to complete an extension of the league's collective bargaining agreement with the players' union. Wednesday's get-together was part of a series of owners' meetings scheduled by Commissioner Paul Tagliabue in a bid to finish the process in October. The owners also reopened bidding for a host city for the 2010 Super Bowl, which they previously had awarded to New York contingent upon funding being approved for a new Manhattan stadium for the Jets. That funding has not been approved . . . .
An MRI exam of the groin injury plaguing Denver rookie tailback Maurice Clarett revealed no serious damage . . . . Pittsburgh signed wide receiver Chris Doering, who was with the team last season. He participated in Thursday's practice.