Today's big back must be merciless and, when the need arises, light on his feet. When Steelers linebacker Greg Lloyd stumbled into his line of fire at Pittsburgh's Paintball Sports Arena last Friday afternoon, Jerome Bettis stitched a Jackson Pollock up his teammate's right side, pirouetted gracefully and then took out Jason Gildon, another linebacker, with four rounds to the torso. Bettis was doing what a big back needs to do. He was wearing down the defense.
Two days later Bettis was splattering Cincinnati Bengals, powering for 101 yards on 25 carries in a 20-3 win at Three Rivers Stadium. Every so often, just to remind the Bengals that he's more than a Sherman tank, he would throw in a hip fake or stutter step, but these feints were like a brooch on a hippo. For the most part, the man with the blue-collar nickname, the Bus, flat ran over people.
As the weather turns foul north of the Sunbelt and the playoffs draw nigh, we take this opportunity to celebrate the NFL's bulkier backs, the mound-like men who move the pile on third-and-one, who are at home running between the tackles, who, for the most part, lack abdominal definition. "It used to be I was considered a big linebacker," says the Arizona Cardinals' Eric Hill, a ninth-year player who goes 6'2", 253 pounds. "Now there are backs about as big as I am. It's a scary profession."
Big backs have been around since the league's Pleistocene epoch (box, page 38). What is unprecedented about the current crop is the array of skills its members boast. The ability to pound the ball inside is but a single line on their résumés. When there is no daylight, they have the vision to find a seam, the agility to step over bodies and the speed to get outside. What's more, they can make people miss, break long runs and catch the ball out of the backfield. Says Steelers coach Bill Cowher, "They're unique people. They're hard to find." And hard to feed.
Along with the Bus (5'11", 243 pounds), the Tennessee Oilers' Eddie George (6'3", 232), the Jacksonville Jaguars' Natrone Means (5'10", 240) and the Baltimore Ravens' Bam Morris (6 feet, 245)—come to think of it, the AFC Central is also Big Back Central—this fraternity of dancing bears includes ballcarriers with whom you may be less familiar. Buffalo Bills rookie first-round pick Antowain Smith (6'2", 224 pounds, 4.48 in the 40) was identified last week by Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan as the "toughest, strongest" back his team would face this season. Jamal Anderson, a 5'11", 234-pound wrecking ball of a runner, is the Falcon who made 250-pound Craig (Ironhead) Heyward expendable in Atlanta.
"They're broadening their horizons," says Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Tony Dung) of today's abnormally large, swift runners, one of whom, 248-pound Mike Alstott (following story), plays for him. "They're like basketball guards. Guys who are six-six, six-seven are doing things little men used to do." Consider Atlanta's Anderson, who has been known to line up as a wide receiver and run a "go" route on one play and then run an off-tackle blast on the next.
At a post-Paintball repast, as he worked his way through a basket of tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant near his apartment, the Bus related some of the sights and sounds experienced by a big back on game day: "First series, they're coming at you like gangbusters. They're swarming to the ball, talking a lot of mess. 'Bus grounded today, baby.' Stuff like that. By the last series guys aren't coming to the ball nearly as last. I'm coming at them, and they're looking around, like, O.K., who's with me?"
As the Steelers have built their 8-3 record this season, Bettis has taken untold pressure off quarterback Kordell Stewart, who is in his first season as a starter. Bettis's 1,238 rushing yards place him second in the NFL, 162 behind the Broncos' Terrell Davis. It is his appetite for collisions, as much as the fact that he has surpassed 100 yards rushing in 18 of his 27 games as a Steeler, that has caused Pittsburgh fans to embrace him. (We mean this figuratively. One reason the ample-bellied, massively derriered, thunderously thighed Bettis is so hard to bring down, says Steelers running backs coach Dick Hoak, is that "it's hard to get your arms around him.")
Investors take note: We are approaching that time of year when the stock of the big back rises. The nastier the weather, the tougher it becomes to throw. Games with playoff implications are followed by playoff games; coaches become more conservative. If you have a big back, says Cardinals defensive coordinator Dave McGinnis, "you have something safe, someone who is moving the chains, shortening the game."
Asked last week if big backs are more valuable late in the year, Shanahan replied, "We'll find out shortly." He already knows. One of last season's most shocking sights was that of Means gashing Shanahan's defense—the NFL's best against the run in 1996—for 140 rushing yards in the Jaguars' 30-27 second-round playoff upset of the Broncos. A week earlier Means had run for 175 yards in Jacksonville's wild-card playoff win in Buffalo.