Jerome Bettis spent the majority of his 13-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, playing with the team for 10 years after he was acquired from the Los Angeles Rams via trade before the 1996 season. Bettis would end his career with his first-ever Super Bowl title in Super Bowl XL, but before his 12th year in the league in 2004, Bettis turned down a trade from Pittsburgh to the Chicago Bears. Talking with NBC Sports’ Peter King on Radio Row during Super Bowl Week, Bettis discussed why he turned the trade down.
“It was the latter part of my career, it was actually a year before I retired. It was the season going into my 12th year, and it was the Chicago Bears. Coach came to me in camp and said, ‘Bears want to trade for you.’” Bettis said the Steelers organization let him make the call on whether or not he wanted to be dealt to Chicago. “I told them basically it’s thoughtful, I appreciate it, it’s great to be wanted, but I know if I went to Chicago, they wanted the 1998 Bus. They didn’t want the 2003 Jerome Bettis. So, I knew going in that I wouldn’t be able to give them what they wanted.
Bettis added that he felt he’d be more effective if he stayed with Pittsburgh.
“I give myself a better chance here, being a backup and being more effective than I would going to try and carry the ball 16 times.”
If Bettis got dealt to the Bears, he surely would’ve been the team’s starting running back in 2004. It was the team’s first season under their former Head Coach Lovie Smith, and their starting running back that year was Thomas Jones, who spent the prior four seasons primarily as a backup. But ultimately, Bettis knew his body couldn’t hold up as a starter, and he was content backing up free-agent Duce Staley in Pittsburgh during the ‘04 season.
The irony of that is that Staley missed six games in 2004 with a hamstring injury and Bettis toted the rock 250 times for 941 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2004 on a Steelers team that went 15-1 with a rookie Ben Roethlisberger leading the charge. Bettis had seven games with over 15 carries and six with 27 or more carries, which is a heck of a lot for a guy who didn’t think he could handle a starter’s load. In 2005, with Bettis dealing with an injury and Willie Parker in the fold, Bettis did take more of a backup role, totaling 110 carries on the season and eventually winning his first Super Bowl in his hometown of Detroit.
With Staley’s injury concerns, holding onto Bettis in 2004 proved to be the right move, even if it was done on his own volition. It also shows a lot of character by Bettis to stick with the Steelers because he knew he couldn’t give the Bears what he perceived to be his best. It also shows Bettis’ love for the Steelers organization that he was content to stay a backup and do his job rather than likely see more touches and potentially a bigger salary elsewhere.
Ultimately, Bettis is a fan-favorite in Pittsburgh. If the Steelers traded him in ‘04, there’s not only a chance they don’t win the Super Bowl in 2005, but if they did it would’ve been ever so slightly bittersweet knowing Bettis wasn’t able to win one with the Steelers. That’s not the case though, and the Hall of Fame running back will go down in team history forever.