SI Vault
Peter King
December 14, 1998
Facing the Music Behind the scenes with embattled officials as they prepare for a game
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December 14, 1998

The Nfl

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Jerome Bettis's Travails
The Bus Has a Flat

Steelers franchise back Jerome Bettis is a jovial sort, rarely without a smile. But last Saturday he looked tired, tired of struggling in a suddenly weak running game and worn out from the controversy that followed the botched overtime coin flip against the Lions. "The coin flip will be with me for the rest of my life," said Bettis, who called tails only to have referee Phil Luckett insist he said heads. "It'll never leave."

Lately it has seemed as though the first slump Bettis has endured since a disastrous year with the Rams in 1995 will be everlasting too. Dealt to the Steelers in '96, Bettis averaged 97 yards rushing per game over the next two regular seasons. This year he's struggling to reach the 1,000-yard mark. After a 12-carry, 48-yard performance in a 23-9 loss to the Patriots on Sunday, he has 879 yards with three games to play.

Bettis, 26, has been running behind an injury-wracked line, but what about the play-calling? On Pittsburgh's first 22 snaps against New England, he carried eight times for 44 yards, and the Steelers trailed only 6-0. But on the 39 plays during the rest of the game he touched the ball just four times. The Steelers ought to know better. If you bang the 252-pound Bettis long enough, he can break a defense. "It makes me laugh when people say I'm washed up or I've lost a step," he says. "We have just had no rhythm from one game to the next."

So the 7-6 Steelers, barring a three-game winning streak to end the regular season or a lot of help from teams ahead of them in the AFC wild-card chase, will miss the playoffs for the first time in coach Bill Cowher's seven years. The players can almost smell the off-season. "I'm confident things will work out for us," says linebacker Levon Kirkland, "if not this year then next year."

49ers Hurting Without Tackle

Niners players and coaches are crushed by the loss of defensive tackle Bryant Young, who broke his right leg on Nov. 30 against the Giants. Already suspect at cornerback, San Francisco can't expect to go far in the playoffs with a tackle rotation of career backup Junior Bryant, converted end Gabe Wilkins and Lions reject Shane Bonham. Against the Panthers the 49ers blew a 21-point lead before winning in overtime 31-28. "He's not completely healthy, but it's time for Gabe to show us what he's got," coach Steve Mariucci says of Wilkins, an off-season free-agent acquisition....

Look for the Colts and the Packers to use their franchise tags on running back Marshall Faulk and wideout Antonio Freeman, respectively, effectively keeping them off the free-agent market in the off-season.

The End Zone
Those Hoarsey Broncos

In advance of his team's game with bitter rival Kansas City, ever-loquacious Denver tight end Shannon Sharpe refused to talk to the media. That, plus coach Mike Shanahan's dislike of the league's injury-reporting system, led the Broncos to add the following to last week's injury report: "TE Shannon Sharpe (laryngitis) probable."

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