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Franco Or The Bus: Who’s The Steelers’ Greatest Running Back Of All-Time?
PHILADELPHIA — When I recently sat down to write a series of articles focusing on comparing each franchise’s all-time greats, I had no idea how tough some of the decisions I would have to make would be.
Case in point, the greatest running back in Pittsburgh history.
When I initially sat down to write this column, I was sure that I was going to select Franco Harris as the Steelers’ best back ever, but the more I thought about it, I realized that Jerome Bettis also had an excellent career in Pittsburgh.
Nevertheless, I have once again made a gut-wrenching decision, however, I am going on record as saying that I firmly stand by my selection.
With that said, let’s take a look at the careers of both players before I make my selection.
Born on March 7, 1950 in Fort Dix, New Jersey, Harris was the 13th overall pick in the 1972 draft and played his first 12 years in the NFL with the Steelers and his final year (1984) with the Seattle Seahawks.
In his first season with the Steelers (1972), Harris was named the league’s rookie of the year by both The Sporting News and United Press International. That season Harris gained 1,055 yards on 188 carries, with a 5.6 yards per carry average.
Harris also rushed for 10 touchdowns and caught 3 touchdown passes, in the proces, becoming extremely popular with Pittsburgh’s large Italian-American population, with his fans dubbing themselves “Franco’s Italian Army” and wearing army helmets with his number on them.
Harris was selected to nine consecutive Pro Bowls from 1972 through 1980, and was an All-Pro in 1977. Harris also broke Jim Brown’s long-standing record by rushing for more than 1,000 yards in eight seasons and helped the Steelers win four Super Bowls in the 1974, 1975, 1978, and 1979 seasons.
In 1975, Harris was the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl IX, rushing for 158 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries for a 16-6 win over the Minnesota Vikings, in the process, becoming the first African-American to win the Super Bowl MVP award.
Harris was a major contributor for the Steelers in all of their first four Super Bowl wins, posting career totals of 101 carries for 354 yards – records that stand to this day. His four career rushing touchdowns are tied for the second most in Super Bowl history.
In his 13 NFL seasons, Harris gained 12,120 yards on 2,949 carries, posting a cereer 4.1 yards per carry average, and scored 91 rushing touchdowns. Harris also caught 307 passes for 2,287 yards and nine touchdowns.
While the Steelers no longer officially retire uniform numbers, they have not reissued his number 32 since he left the team, and it is generally understood that no Steeler will ever wear that number again.
Born on February 16, 1972 in Detroit Michigan, Bettis was the 10th overall pick in the 1993 draft, picked by the Los Angeles Rams. As a rookie, Bettis immediately proved that he was going to be a star for years to come by rushing for 1,429 yards, in the process, being named Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Bettis also rushed for over 1,000 in his second season with the Rams but his carries declined and he inexplicably fell out of favor with the team, although he did earn the nickname “Battering Ram.”
After Rams head coach, Chuck Knox retired and was replaced by the nearly incompetent Rich Brooks, Bettis no longer fit into the team’s plans. The Steelers, at the time, were desperately in need of a running back.
Bam Morris, their featured back in 1995, had pleaded guilty to marijuana possession and was cut by the team in June, 1996. Bettis was traded to Pittsburgh that summer for the measley cost of a third round draft pick in exchange for a second round pick in 1996 and a fourth round draft pick in 1997.
After Bettis’ arrival in Pittsburgh, his career took an immediate turn for the better and Bettis became an integral part of the Steelers offense.
Bettis rushed for over 1,000 yards six consecutive seasons from 1996 to 2001 before injuries cost him part of the 2002 season, and he began the 2003 season as a back-up to Amos Zereoue.
Despite regaining his starting role mid-way through the 2003 season, Bettis again found himself a back-up to start the 2004 season, this time to Duce Staley.
However, when an injury held Staley out of action, Bettis stepped in and gained over 100 yards in each of his seven regular season starts, leading to a Pro-Bowl berth for the sixth time in his career.
Bettis spent the 2005 season as a full-time short yardage specialis and although age had altered his role immensely, he remained a vital cog to the Steelers.
After the Steelers’ defeat in the 2004 AFC Championship Game on January 23, 2005, Bettis announced that he was considering retirement, but would not make a final decision for several months to prevent the sting of the defeat from clouding his judgment. Later, Bettis agreed to stay with the Steelers for another season.
He stated he would love to play in the Super Bowl in 2006 since it was to be played in his hometown of Detroit. His wish came true as the Steelers played in, and won, Super Bowl XL against the Seattle Seahawks 21-10 on February 5th, 2006.
For his career, Bettis was named to the Pro Bowl in 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2001 and 2004. Bettis won the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award in 1996, and in 2002 he was the recipient of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
Bettis finished his 13 NFL seasons as the NFL’s 5th all-time leading rusher with 13,662 yards and 91 touchdowns and also caught 200 passes for 1,449 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Most people think Bettis acquired the nickname “The Bus” from legendary Steelers radio color commentator Myron Cope, but Cope only popularized the nickname after hearing a brother of a fellow Notre Dame alumni call Jerome “Bussy” in Green Bay.
Bettis credits someone at the Notre Dame school newspaper with first using the now famous nickname.
By looking at the career statistics, Harris wins this argument hands-down. Harris gained 11,950 career yards as a Steeler, while Bettis rushed for 10,571 while wearing Pittsburgh’s black and gold.
Both players were “big” backs, but Franco’s agility was much more prevalent than Bettis’ and he was also a much more elusive runner throughout his career than Bettis, who became much more of a straight-ahead runner after his first few seasons in the league.
Harris’ career average of 4.1 yards per carry is also better than Bettis’ 3.9 career average and his ability to catch the ball was infinitely better than Bettis’. Harris also caught 307 passes out of the backfield in 173 games while Bettis caught 200 in 192.
Statistics aside, I am unequivocally casting my vote for Harris.
It’s not that I don’t like Bettis, I really do, and I think he’s a definite Hall of Famer; it’s just that I believe Harris was more versatile and more elusive, if not quite as hard to tackle as “The Bus”.
In closing, let me say that, off the field, both of these guys are genuine winners, and in the long run, isn’t that more important than how many yards either gained in their illustrious careers?