Coach Bill Cowher raised doubt whether Bettis would be back with the Steelers in 2003 during his season-ending press conference. At the time, he singled out Bettis and Kordell Stewart as two "high profile players" they would have to make decisions about.
"We have to sit down again and look at what the options are and the direction we are going as it relates to our roster and the cap," Cowher said.
But several things have occurred since then that bodes well for the return of the Bus. First, Bettis is rounding into good shape and his knee has responded well. Second, they did not sign safety Dexter Jackson after offering him $12 million. That saved them some cap room. They did sign tight end Jay Riemersma, which means they likely will release tight end Mark Bruener in June and save $2 million under their cap right there. They also reworked a few other veteran contracts to make room under their cap, so they no longer need the savings they could get ($2.75 million) if they released Bettis in June.
The plan, when Bettis signed two years ago, was to get three more seasons out of him to make it worthwhile to them. They would like to get that third season and they think they can, with their new emphasis on a passing offense, do so. They will use Amos Zereoue much more next season as a receiver and a runner.
Bettis has missed considerable time in each of the past two seasons after going through his first eight NFL seasons as an iron man. It's possible that, at age 31, he's breaking down; at the least, he cannot recover as quickly from injuries. Even if he comes to camp in the best shape of his life, he will not get anywhere near the number of carries he is used to.
That's OK with Bettis. He's willing to play a complementary role with Zereoue or even Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala.
"He's on track, rehabbing," Cowher said. "He ought to be able to do some things by our June minicamp. He's been there and he's making very good progress. I'd like to think [he'll be 100 percent]. He's not able to recover from injuries as quickly as he has in the past but when Jerome's been healthy, Jerome's very, very well."
One thing could change all of this. If the Steelers draft a running back on the first round - or on the first day - they might cut the cord with Bettis after training camp. They would prefer to draft another position, but if a stud like Larry Johnson is available to them, they might just snap him up.
--The Steelers met with safety Sammy Knight in Pittsburgh on Wednesday but have not opened negotiations with him. They are looking for someone to replace Lee Flowers, who will leave as a free agent, although they might try to fill the position in the draft.
--QB Tommy Maddox will begin working out in Pittsburgh on Monday. He has not worked out at their facility since the end of the season. Backup quarterback Charlie Batch has been working out in Pittsburgh on occasion.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It would probably be a great fit. I'm an aggressive guy, this is an aggressive defense." -- S Sammy Knight on his visit to Pittsburgh Wednesday (April 9).
NEEDS/DRAFT PRIORITIES: DB, LB, QB. 1. Defensive back (either corner or safety, they need younger, better, faster). 2. Linebacker (They need a strong backup on the outside), 3. Quarterback (The last young quarterback they developed was Kordell Stewart).
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: TE John Allred (not a priority); S Lee Flowers (they will not try to re-sign him); LB Mike Jones (they aren't interested in him); WR Terance Mathis (unlikely to return); P Tom Rouen (was an injury replacement and won't be back).
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: DE Clark Haggans (tendered at $605,000 with 5th-round pick as compensation); FB Dan Kreider (tendered at $605,000 with no compensation); CB Hank Poteat (tendered at $605,000 with 3rd-round pick as compensation).
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: None.
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: QB Charlie Batch (UFA; $2M/2 yrs, $470,000 SB); DT Kendrick Clancy (RFA; $605,000/1 yr); TE Matt Cushing (UFA; $530,000/1 yr; 2003 cap: $450,000); TE Jerame Tuman (UFA: $3.3M/3 yrs, $600,000 SB; 2003 cap: $730,000); OG Keydrick Vincent (Potential ERFA; $375,000/1 yr).
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: OT Todd Fordham (UFA Jaguars; $2.4M/3 yrs, $470,000 SB); LB Clint Kriewaldt (UFA $2.38M/3 yrs, $420,000 SB; 2003 cap: $670,000); TE Jay Riemersma (FA Bills; $3.95M/3 yrs, $850,000 SB).
PLAYERS LOST: TE Marco Battaglia (UFA Dolphins; 1 yr, terms unknown); OT Wayne Gandy (UFA Saints; $25M/6 yrs, $5M SB); PK Todd Peterson (cut); QB Kordell Stewart (cut).
MEDICAL WATCH: No updates.