Now that he’s an NBC football commentator, Jerome Bettis won’t hesitate to criticize his beloved Pittsburgh Steelers when they have a bad game. Or so he says.
“If Ben Roethlisberger throws three interceptions, I can’t help him up,” the retired running back known as “The Bus” told TV critics during a press conference in July. “I’ve got to tell him,
‘Hey, you played poorly.’”
Hey, not so fast, his fellow announcers said.
Bob Costas: “You owe Ben, big time. Because after that fumble at the goal line, if he doesn’t somehow tackle [Nick] Harper, your whole life story is a whole lot different.”
John Madden: “Your life is a whole lot different.”
Sterling Sharpe: “It would be Shaun Alexander sitting here right now.”
Bettis laughed hard — and he can afford to. His fumble in the playoffs against the Indianapolis Colts didn’t wind up hurting his team, and he retired with a Super Bowl ring.
Afterward, I asked him more about how his team was able to manhandle Indianapolis that January afternoon. With the Colts ready to start another season (Sunday, Sept. 10, 8:15 p.m. vs. the New York Giants), this seemed like an opportune time to share his comments.
NUVO: How did you stop Peyton Manning for so long?
Bettis: We knew that Peyton Manning, when it got to eight seconds [left on the play clock], he started to make his call. By four seconds, he was locked in. So our defense, at eight seconds, they gave him a look. At four seconds, they were in a totally different look. So we made sure that we gave him a different look from four seconds to eight seconds all the time. So you can’t make the call anymore. Your protection is set one way, we come in a different way, there’s nothing you can do about it. He can call time out, but other than that, that’s it.
We knew from doing our homework, at eight seconds, he did all this barking and all that didn’t mean anything. He did all of that to get to eight seconds, and at eight seconds, he felt you were declared at what you were going to play. And he made his call real quick, real quick, and usually one word was their call. So it was really quick how they could get to a play. So what we did was, we said, OK. We got one for you. Eight seconds. Seven, six, five, four and we went over here.
NUVO: What was it like for you when you fumbled?
Bettis: It was the worst thing ever imaginable. It was one of those things: oh, shit. I could not believe I just did that. Because I went on the field — I’ll never forget it, obviously, because of the turn of events — but I went on the field, I’m saying to myself, “Don’t fumble. Score a touchdown. It’s over. Don’t fumble. Score a touchdown. It’s over. Don’t fumble. Score a touchdown. It’s over.”
NUVO: When the ball popped out, were you running to try to tackle Harper?
Bettis: When I got hit, I was turned. The guy came across me. The ball goes up, but my momentum was still going forward because he never hit me in my body. He just hit the ball. So I’m still falling forward into the end zone. So I fall in and I’m looking for the ball. When I got hit, I expected the ball to go to the ground. So I’m looking down to the ground, falling back, I don’t see the ball. When I hit the ground, you get your head up — it happened in slow motion — and I see the guy running with the ball. It was the scariest moment I’ve ever had playing football. The fear. I was like, noooooo. When [Roethlisberger] got him down, I was like, whew.
NUVO: You had Manning’s number in the next sequence. He could do nothing in those three downs.
Bettis: We were pretty tuned into him, and we had a good idea of their routes and the things they liked to do in crunch time and how much they liked to go to Dallas Clark in those particular situations. He’s really the guy they look to, more so than their wide receivers, and then they’ll go to Edgerrin [James] for the small dump. We were conscious of those things, as opposed to him going down the field. When they get into crunch time, he doesn’t necessarily like to go downfield to the wide receivers because obviously everybody’s kind of keying on those guys. He’ll get it to Clark going across the middle, an option route, or get it to Edgerrin and give him an opportunity to make a play. So we were really conscious of those kind of things in those situations. We were playing a lot of situational football with Peyton.
NUVO: Vanderjagt comes in. Did you think he would make the field goal?
Bettis: No question. Vanderjagt is the most accurate kicker in the game. We thought, we’re going to overtime. But we’ll win in overtime.