The Pittsburgh Steelers' dreams of a Super Bowl run were
crumbling, and Denver Broncos defensive end Alfred Williams was
making sure that the Men in Black and Gold knew it. The Broncos
had jumped to a 21-7 lead in the second quarter of a Dec. 7 game
at Three Rivers Stadium, a matchup that would go a long way
toward determining which of these elite teams would earn a
first-round bye in the AFC playoffs. For two decades it has been
nearly impossible for a team that played in the wild-card round
to reach the Super Bowl--much less win it--and Williams's
badgering reflected the magnitude of the moment. He talked smack
to Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher and yapped nonstop at the
Steelers' Jerome (the Bus) Bettis, telling the Pro Bowl
halfback, "The Bus is grounded today, baby. The wheels are
By the fourth quarter it was Denver's bandwagon that was
grounded. Pittsburgh fought back for a 35-24 victory, with the
243-pound Bettis gaining 74 of his 125 yards after halftime. The
defeat dropped the Broncos behind the Kansas City Chiefs in the
AFC West race, dooming them to the wild-card round and a
postseason of probable futility. By the regular season's end
Denver was in the same position as last year's San Francisco
49ers, who, despite a 12-4 record, finished second in the NFC
West behind the Carolina Panthers and were eliminated by the
Green Bay Packers in a second-round playoff game at Lambeau Field.
The Steelers, meanwhile, rode the Denver victory to an AFC
Central title and a first-round bye. Whether the Bus and his
friends will make the journey to San Diego for Super Bowl XXXII
on Jan. 25 remains to be seen, but they have a heck of a head
start. Since 1978, when the NFL added a second wild card in each
conference, 100 teams have been forced to play an extra game to
reach the second round. Only one, the '80 Oakland Raiders, won
the Super Bowl, and just two others, the '85 New England
Patriots and '92 Buffalo Bills, made it to the title game.
If the Broncos can't buck history, they'll undoubtedly look back
to that chilly afternoon in Pittsburgh as the day their dream
began to slip away. Williams certainly won't forget the way
Bettis rubbed it in during the game's latter stages, yelling,
"Alfred, where you at? I can't hear you. What were you saying
back in the first quarter? Could you repeat it for me, Alfred?
Please?" Predictably Williams didn't have much to say in the way
of a comeback. "That's typical," Steelers fullback Tim Lester
says. "When we run all day on a team, people shut up. It's a
sign we've worn them down and destroyed their will."
It's a mental game Pittsburgh plays as well as any team, and one
that could be the deciding factor in these playoffs. The
Steelers boast the league's No. 1 rushing offense, while the
other three teams that received byes--the Chiefs (fifth), 49ers
(eighth) and Packers (12th)--all rank in the top half. Along
with the playoff-bound New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers
and the 8-8 Tennessee Oilers, Pittsburgh, Kansas City and San
Francisco are the only teams that ran the ball more than they
passed in '97. In a year when marquee runners have enjoyed a
revival, it's logical to expect a back such as Bettis, who
finished third in the league with 1,665 rushing yards, to claim
center stage come playoff time.
There are two basic tenets about offense in the playoffs: One,
it takes a great quarterback to elevate a team to the
championship; and, two, a team can't succeed in the postseason
if it can't run the ball. Nine of the past 10 Super Bowl winners
have outgained their opponents on the ground, though that may be
a function of the one-sided nature of most of those matchups. A
more telling statistic is that in each of the last 10 NFC
Championship Games, the winner--and eventual Super Bowl
champion--outrushed the loser.
"Over the years I've seen so many AFC teams abandon the run when
they get to the big game," Bettis says, alluding to his
conference's 13-game Super Bowl losing streak. "That's not going
to happen this year."
While the Steelers place their rushing fate in Bettis's hands,
the Chiefs run by committee. Kansas City coach Marty
Schottenheimer won't tip his hand, but it is widely believed
that in crucial playoff moments he will turn to 37-year-old
Marcus Allen, a future Hall of Famer who has scored more
touchdowns (145) than any NFL player except Jerry Rice. Even the
Niners and Packers, both practitioners of the pass-happy West
Coast offense, have leaned heavily on the run this season.
Garrison Hearst, San Francisco's key off-season acquisition,
became the first Niner to break the 1,000-yard barrier since
Ricky Watters in 1992. Green Bay's Dorsey Levens, in his first
year as a starting halfback, got a Pro Bowl berth by running for
Partly because of their productivity, and partly because of
their upbeat personalities, Bettis, Allen, Hearst and Levens are
more popular in their locker rooms than Oakley shades. But each
player has seen his share of dark days, and if there's one thing
these four backs have in common, it's an ability to charge past
JEROME BETTIS CLEARING HIS NAME
Sitting in the den of his posh home in a suburb north of
Pittsburgh on a late December afternoon, Bettis smiles at the
size of the holes in his midst. A half-dozen workers are
installing speakers into cavities in the wall, and soon Bettis
will be able to enjoy the ultimate entertainment experience. "I
can't wait for surround sound," Bettis says, earning a healthy
smile from Lester, his close friend and blocking back who is
seated next to him. Lester remembers what it was like when both
men played for the Los Angeles Rams. As a rookie in '93, Bettis
rushed for 1,429 yards and earned a trip to the Pro Bowl, but
running behind an injury-ravaged line the following season, he
gained only 1,025 yards. The walls seemed to be closing in.
Lester was cut by the Rams shortly after the franchise moved to
St. Louis in '95, and signed with the Steelers less than two
months later. Bettis staged a training-camp holdout that summer,
agitating fans and first-year coach Rich Brooks. When the sides
agreed to discuss a contract extension after the season, Bettis
returned to work. But he was slowed by a foot injury for most of
the year and, despite playing in 15 games, ran for only 637
yards. The low point came in the second-to-last game, a
meaningless matchup in St. Louis against the Washington
Redskins. Bettis had started the game, only to be benched. He
later returned to the lineup for one play. "I got booed on the
way to the huddle, gained four yards and got booed all the way
back to the sideline," he recalls. "I was in shock."
On draft day of '96 the Rams selected Nebraska halfback Lawrence
Phillips with the sixth pick and ceded Bettis to the Steelers
along with a third-round selection for second- and fourth-round
picks. While Phillips lived down to his troubled reputation and
has since been waived, Bettis rocked from the start in
Pittsburgh, where he was reunited with Lester. Most casual fans
would not recognize Lester, despite the fact that the fullback
sports the league's most robust Afro. "The players know how
special he is," Cowher says of Lester, whose blocking duties do
not end on the field. "Jerome and Timmy go everywhere together,
and Timmy's always in front."
But it is the 25-year-old Bettis who best exemplifies the
Steelers' physical style. "Jerome has a personality that fits
our approach to the game perfectly," Cowher says. "He likes to
carry the ball a lot, he works for what he gets, and he displays
an enthusiasm for running the ball that you would normally see
on defense. He's a great fit for this team and for this city."
MARCUS ALLEN STAYING ALIVE
When Allen finally broke free from the spiteful grip of Raiders
owner Al Davis and signed with the Chiefs after the '92 season,
he figured Kansas City would be a suitable, if boring, place to
finish his career. Like Joe Montana, another fading star who
joined the Chiefs that spring, Allen expected to play only a
couple of more years. But while Montana called it quits
following the '94 season, Allen has remained an integral part of
the K.C. attack. After hinting earlier in the year that the '97
season would be his last, Allen has waffled; he now says there's
a strong possibility that he'll return in '98.
"I always get pumped up by the naysayers and by the younger
players trying to make their names off me," Allen says. "There
are so many players who get older and allow themselves to die,
figuratively. It's great to see people like Earnest Byner,
Herschel Walker and myself hanging in there and producing."
Though he is known to lead by example, Allen can also be vocal.
Early in the season four-year veteran Greg Hill came to the
sideline for a breather after breaking a long run. When the K.C.
drive ended, Allen cornered Hill and barked, "What the f--- are
you doing? You can never be too tired to play. I don't care if I
never step on the field--you should never take yourself out of
Allen has been energized by the adulation he has received in
Kansas City. This year he and his wife, Kathryn, were chosen to
flip the switch that illuminated the tony Country Club Plaza
with Christmas lights. "It was awesome," Marcus says. "There
were 250,000 people there, and it was quite an honor. The
reception for me here has been overwhelming, so much so that I'm
embarrassed at times. Initially, as a narrow-minded guy, I
didn't realize what Kansas City had to offer. Now it's like home
Lately Allen has spent a lot of time thinking about his original
home, San Diego, where he hopes to return in late January. The
story lines race through his mind: No AFC team has won the Super
Bowl since the '83 Raiders, and Allen is the last player from
that team who is still active. Super Bowl XXXII--same as Allen's
uniform number--will take place at a stadium in which he first
played during a Pop Warner game a quarter-century ago, when he
was the star halfback for the Southeast San Diego Lions.
"You think about things that have happened and where you've
been," Allen says. "I won the San Diego County championship
[with Lincoln High] at San Diego Stadium--it kills me to think
it's called Qualcomm now--and then you think about coming back,
and it starts to seem like destiny. You can't help but
visualize, but for me it seems very real, almost tangible. I
wonder, Is this supposed to happen? I don't believe in
GARRISON HEARST FITTING THE BILL
The 49ers' signing of Hearst to a two-year, incentive-laden
deal, one that ultimately figures to pay him more than $3
million, was indisputably one of the best moves of the
off-season. The only question is, Who got the better of the deal?
San Francisco desperately needed Hearst, its first rushing
threat since Watters jumped to the Philadelphia Eagles as a
restricted free agent following the '94 season. But whereas
Watters was reviled for his selfishness--a 49ers teammate once
altered a team photo by gluing cutouts of Watters's face over
those of everyone pictured--Hearst is a locker room favorite,
whom one coach calls "the anti-Watters." Hearst "has made a
huge difference," says offensive line assistant Bobb McKittrick.
"People can't play us the way Green Bay did the last two years,
using various types of the nickel defense for 60 to 70 percent
of the game."
Having spent his first four seasons playing for two of the worst
organizations in the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals and the
Cincinnati Bengals, Hearst is as excited to be with the Niners
as they are to have him. He laughs when asked to compare San
Francisco owner Eddie DeBartolo with Arizona counterpart Bill
Bidwill. "When I first got here, Mr. DeBartolo introduced
himself, and he knew everything about me," Hearst says. "The
only time you'd see Bidwill was when it was time to eat--then
he'd appear out of nowhere. I don't even think he likes football
players. You'd see him coming down the hall, and he'd do
everything he could to avoid you."
The third pick in the '93 draft, Hearst severely sprained the
medial collateral ligament in his left knee during his rookie
season and had surgery. He ran for 1,070 yards in '95, but he
mostly struggled while playing for the Cardinals, who cut him
for salary-cap reasons before the '96 season. "That organization
was the worst," he says. "Guys hated coming to work. One time
two players got into a fistfight in our locker room a couple of
hours before the game."
In his first season with San Francisco, Hearst rushed for 1,019
yards, despite missing the last three games with a broken left
clavicle. Now the 49ers might have to win at least one playoff
game without him. Hearst, who turns 27 on Jan. 4, might not be
available until the NFC Championship Game, if San Francisco gets
that far. Without him the Niners must rely on Terry Kirby, an
effective receiver who lacks Hearst's explosiveness at the line.
"We have to have the running game to go where we want to go,"
says Kirk Scrafford, the Niners' right tackle. "Garrison's the
key to that."
DORSEY LEVENS LOOKING FOR LOVE
In October, during the Packers' bye week, Levens flew to
Chicago and appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The topic was
"NFL Stars Looking for True Love," but the 27-year-old Levens
had other motives. "True love is cool," he says, "but I mostly
wanted to meet Oprah."
After the show aired, Levens received hundreds of letters and
personalized videotapes, not to mention healthy doses of candy
and flowers, from eligible women across the U.S. "But no
underwear," Levens says regretfully. "I came off as the nice,
sweet guy, so I didn't get any of the good stuff."
Soon Levens will be even more of a catch. He plans to test the
free-agent market after the season and could command as much as
$4 million a year. The Packers could have saved themselves some
money--and perhaps a back--by signing Levens during the
off-season, when he was seeking a three-year deal averaging
about $1.6 million a season. He settled for a one-year, $785,000
contract. When starting halfback Edgar Bennett suffered a
season-ending Achilles tendon injury in the Pack's exhibition
opener, Levens got his chance to shine. In a couple of months
someone will pay.
Though he isn't thrilled with Green Bay's weather or social
scene--"It's like Groundhog Day, the same day over and over
again," Levens says--he hopes to re-sign with the Packers. After
all, Levens has been searching for a situation like this one
since his Pop Warner days. At Nottingham High in Syracuse,
Levens split the rushing chores with backfield mate E.J.
Dowdell. He went to Notre Dame and played with a stable of stars
that included future NFL running backs Bettis, Watters, Reggie
Brooks and Rodney Culver. He ascended to the top of the tailback
depth chart entering his sophomore year but suffered a knee
injury and underwent surgery shortly before the season. Levens
hoped to redshirt, but Lou Holtz demanded he return at
midseason. "He was such a dictator," Levens says of Holtz. "It
wasn't in Notre Dame's best interest to redshirt me. There was
so much negative energy surrounding me."
Levens transferred to Georgia Tech and, after sitting out for
one season, watched as Bobby Ross left the program to coach the
San Diego Chargers. Ross was replaced by Bill Lewis, and after a
junior year in which Levens split time at fullback and tailback,
he moved exclusively to tailback in '93. He ran for 823 yards
and had a 7.2-yard average. Drafted in the fifth round by the
Packers, Levens emerged as the starting fullback in his second
season, but Green Bay drafted William Henderson in '95. A year
later Levens was switched to halfback. "Playing fullback helped
Dorsey," Bettis says. "When I met him, he was a guy who didn't
want to be touched and didn't want to get his uniform dirty. Now
he's a more physical runner."
That was evident during last season's NFC Championship Game,
when Levens burned the Panthers for a combined 205 rushing and
receiving yards, and in the Super Bowl, in which he led all
rushers, with 61 yards. This year could a running back take home
the MVP award for the first time since the Cowboys' Emmitt Smith
in January '94, and only the third time since Allen won it for
the Raiders 13 years ago? "I'd bet on it," Bettis says.
THE STEELERS' GROUND GAME
Philosophy: Pound the ball until the opponent succumbs. "It's
not something you can turn on or off," coach Bill Cowher says.
"With us it's an attitude--a general toughness--and it starts on
the first day of training camp." Adds halfback Jerome Bettis
(right), "Coach Cowher's philosophy is, in a word,
relentlessness. He says, 'We will run the ball and you will stop
us, but eventually we'll wear you down.'"
Leading the Way: Pittsburgh has two of the league's best run
blockers in fullback Tim Lester and center Dermontti Dawson. The
latter is a perennial All-Pro, the former deserves serious
consideration. "He's a one-man wrecking crew," Bettis says of
Lester. "He just destroys linebackers and safeties. By the end
of the game they're doing everything they can to run around
him." Dawson's ability to pull like a guard and call blocking
assignments affords the Steelers an inordinate amount of
flexibility. "Most defenses will use specific fronts to keep you
from running certain plays," Bettis says. "But Dermontti can
just make a call at the line, and we can run any play against
X Factor: The Steelers have a second rushing threat, and he
touches the ball on every play: Kordell Stewart, the NFL's
fastest and most explosive quarterback. He's second in the
league in percentage of runs that went for a first down (48.9%),
trailing only Tennessee Oilers quarterback Steve McNair.
Prime Numbers: Not only did they lead the league in rushing, but
the Steelers also ranked first in percentage of runs that went
for first downs (26.9%) and second in runs of 10 or more yards
THE CHIEFS' GROUND GAME
Philosophy: Keep everyone fresh--and happy--by spreading the
workload. After anointing fourth-year speedster Greg Hill as his
feature back during the off-season, coach Marty Schottenheimer
changed his mind in September, installing various formations
that split the carries among Hill (550 yards), Marcus Allen (505
yards) and fullbacks Kimble Anders (397 yards) and Donnell
Bennett (369 yards). Says Schottenheimer, "Each guy brings
something different to the table, and at any given time we have
a fresh running back carrying the ball."
Leading the Way: The Chiefs' strength is up the middle. Right
guard Will Shields is going to the Pro Bowl, and center Tim
Grunhard and left guard Dave Szott also had stellar seasons. In
Kansas City's most impressive performance, a 44-9 victory over
the 49ers on Nov. 30, the interior linemen pushed around two of
the NFL's most dominant defensive tackles, Dana Stubblefield and
Bryant Young. Anders, a Pro Bowl selection for the third time
this year, is second only to the Steelers' Tim Lester as a
X Factor: Hill is the fastest back on the team, Bennett the most
powerful and Anders, who caught 59 passes, the most versatile.
But if the Chiefs need a yard on third or fourth down, no player
is more potent than Allen (right), who has a knack for
short-yardage and goal line success. "There's no way that
sumbitch should be able to do what he does down there," says
Chiefs linebacker Derrick Thomas. "I can't explain it."
Prime Numbers: Allen picked up a first down on 33.9% of his
rushes, best among NFL running backs. He also had 11 of the
Chiefs' 15 rushing touchdowns.
THE 49ERS' GROUND GAME
Philosophy: Keep Steve Young healthy by going to the run more.
First-year coach Steve Mariucci wanted to balance the attack,
and by relying more on the run he also instilled a toughness in
the offense and took pressure off Young. But after halfback
Garrison Hearst (above) was sidelined with a broken clavicle on
Nov. 30 (he may miss at least the Niners' playoff opener),
Mariucci restored the aerial attack to prominence. "At this
point," he says, "we'll do what we've got to do."
Leading the Way: Bucking team tradition, the 49ers have turned
from finesse guards to beefy ones, Ray Brown (305 pounds) and
Kevin Gogan (325), who power a running attack geared to the
inside. Gogan made the Pro Bowl, but Brown and right tackle Kirk
Scrafford probably had better seasons. Hearst says of the quiet
Scrafford, "He's old-fashioned mean, like, I'm gonna go fishing,
and if you mess with me, I'll rip your head off."
X Factor: Young is 36 and possibly one concussion away from
retirement, and he has finally consented to using the feet-first
slide. But he still has those halfback instincts, and on a
crucial play in an elimination game, do you really expect a man
who has averaged 6.3 yards on 81 postseason rushing attempts to
Prime Numbers: Before Hearst went down, the Niners averaged 3.9
yards per rush. In three games without him, the average dipped
to 3.2 yards. Nevertheless, they finished the season with more
rushing attempts than passes for the first time since 1984, when
they won their second Super Bowl.
THE PACKERS' GROUND GAME
Philosophy: Rushing takes a backseat to passing--unless it's
just too easy for Green Bay to dominate on the ground. Coach
Mike Holmgren loves to bring his brainy schemes to life through
the rocket arm of Brett Favre. But when the Packers faced the
undersized Cowboys on Nov. 23, Holmgren swallowed hard and ran
halfback Dorsey Levens 33 times. The result: Levens picked up a
team-record 190 yards, and Green Bay rolled to a 45-17 victory.
The next week Levens carried 31 times for 108 yards in a 27-11
win over the Vikings.
Leading the Way: Green Bay killed the Cowboys by running to the
weak side, and a key component to the Packers' toughness is left
tackle Ross Verba, a rookie first-round draft pick out of Iowa.
Since the sixth game, when he replaced John Michels, the team's
No. 1 pick in '96, Verba has proved to be a surprisingly fluid
blocker. Also, his unrelenting style has energized the rushing
attack. Pro Bowl tight end Mark Chmura and fullback William
Henderson are also strong run blockers.
X Factor: In last season's playoffs Holmgren had great success
using Levens, a power back, as a change of pace from smaller
starter Edgar Bennett. If Levens wears down in January, will
Holmgren turn to little-used backup Aaron Hayden or
lightning-fast reserve fullback Travis Jervey?
Prime Numbers: Here's something for Green Bay's playoff
opponents to think about: During the '96 regular season the
Packers had a 54% to 46% pass-to-run ratio. Yet during their
three-game postseason Super Bowl title drive, they ran 63% of