Bettis at crossroads in career

Updated: February 10, 2005, 11:39 PM ET
By James C. Black | ESPN.com

KAPOLEI, Hawaii -- Right about now, Jerome Bettis must feel like Al Pacino's character in "The Godfather: Part III." Every time he tries to get out, someone pulls him back in.

After the Steelers lost to New England, 41-27, in the AFC title game last month, Bettis intended to step away from football for a while and contemplate whether he would return for a 13th season. But just like the Steelers' plans on how they would use him this season, Bettis' strategy has gone awry.

First, Bettis found himself thrust into the spotlight in Jacksonville, Fla., before Super Bowl XXXIX. He received an award and later appeared as a guest on various NFL-related programs. Then when New England's Corey Dillon pulled out of the Pro Bowl on Tuesday because of an injury, Bettis was asked to take his spot on the AFC roster.

"It was great because as a 12-year running back, you usually don't get that opportunity," said Bettis, set to make his fifth appearance in the all-star game.

Clearly, the Pro Bowl folks weren't ready for his arrival. The jersey he wore to his first practice at Ihilani Resort on Thursday read "Betis."

"I'm just glad it was 36 on the jersey and not 34," Bettis joked.

Given the way the 2004 campaign played out, Bettis should no longer be caught off guard. Last offseason, the Steelers signed free-agent running back Duce Staley and named him the starter. That move meant Bettis, who hadn't logged 250 carries since the 2000 season, would primarily see action in short-yardage situations.

"I understood the dynamics of the position," Bettis said on accepting a backup role. "I understood there was a possibility of me not touching the field."

That concern lessened in the season opener when Bettis scored on three one-yard runs in a victory over Oakland. Then, less than two months later, the Steelers were forced to call an audible. Staley suffered a hamstring injury that sidelined him for six of the final nine games, meaning Bettis would now carry the load.

The seasoned veteran wasted no time proving he was ready for the responsibility. He rushed for at least 100 yards in each of his first four starts and led the Steelers with 250 carries, 941 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.

"It was an opportunity for me to showcase what I'm still able to do," said Bettis, who is fifth all-time in rushing yards (13,294). "Unfortunately as you get older as a running back, the thought that you can't do it gets greater."

After coming off such a good campaign, the question isn't whether he's still capable of producing, but whether he's willing to play another year.

Teammate and good friend Joey Porter doesn't anticipate a decision immediately, but suggested there will be tell-tale signs on what direction Bettis is leaning.

"If I see that he's taking care of his body and staying in good shape this offseason, then I expect him to play another season," said Porter, one of the Steelers' two Pro Bowl linebackers. "But if he takes it easy and doesn't work out, then I know he's leaving."

And aside from walking off the field as a Super Bowl winner, retiring after Sunday's Pro Bowl would be a sweet grand finale.

James C. Black is an NFL Editor for ESPN.com and may be reached at james.black@espn3.com.

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