"It's a little different," said Steelers head coach Bill Cowher of opening training camp without Bettis for the first time since 1996. "Just seeing his smile and his practices, but that's part of the process of moving on."
One of the biggest components of moving on without Bettis will be finding a replacement as a complement to Willie Parker. Bettis's hard-driving running style was the perfect complement to Parker's speed. Though he had just 368 yards rushing last season, Bettis's nine rushing touchdowns led the team.
Finding his replacement will be one of the Steelers' goals for this training camp. That's where Duce Staley comes in.
First on the Steelers' depth chart heading into training camp last year, Staley arrived at Latrobe with a torn meniscus in his knee. His subsequent surgery opened the door for Parker to win the starting job and left Staley standing on the sidelines for much of 2005. Now, the 10-year NFL veteran and three-time 1,000-yard rusher is ready to show everyone he can still be an effective runner in the NFL.
"I want to get in there and compete and try to stay focused and stay as healthy as I can," Staley said Sunday.
"I enjoyed the ring. That's something that's definitely special to me. I trained, tried to get the knee stronger. Who knows what's going to happen? We'll see."
There's the key, keeping the knee healthy. Since joining the Steelers as a free agent two years ago, staying healthy has been something of a problem for Staley. In fact, staying healthy has been something of a problem for the hard-running Staley throughout his NFL career.
But nobody has ever questioned Staley's toughness. He returned from a painful Lis Franc injury in 2001 with Philadelphia after a grueling offseason workout and was given the Ed Block Courage Award for his efforts. He was healthy enough to play a few games last season, but took a back seat to Parker, Bettis and even third-down back Verron Haynes because the Steelers were playing so well.
The Steelers went on to win the Super Bowl, Parker rushed for more than 1,200 yards, and Staley was active for just five games, one of them a start in Green Bay when Parker and Bettis were injured. Staley rushed for 76 yards on 15 carries and scored the Steelers' lone offensive touchdown in a 20-10 victory.
But Staley never complained about his lack of a role. Instead, he swallowed his pride, kept his chin up and never rocked the boat.
"I think true Steelers fans know. I know the players do," Staley said when asked about the situation. "That's something I felt in my heart I had to do. You had Willie out there playing great, playing exceptionally well. You had Bussy out there in his last year out there making plays left and right. You had Verron out there. You had three good backs out there making plays. I didn't want to be the one out there to say, Hey, I want to play. I didn't want to be selfish. That's not me."
After he sat out Saturday's run test, some may have viewed it as a sign that Staley's knee still isn't 100 percent healthy. But the running back said Sunday that the knee won't be a problem and he's ready for whatever role the Steelers need him to play this season.
"I think I can perform without worrying about the knee," said the man who took a $1-million paycut to stay with the Steelers this season.
"The thing is, I've had a year off. I haven't had a training camp in a year, so just getting acclimated to training camp is going to be tough. Hopefully things will continue to get better. I'm blessed with a good situation."
What that situation turns out to be remains to be seen. Parker enters this camp the unquestioned starter, while Staley, Haynes and even rookie Cedric Humes, a seventh-round draft pick, are in the mix behind him.
Staley, whom the Steelers signed to a five-year, $14-million contract two seasons ago, is the most accomplished of that trio. In his first season with the Steelers, he gained 707 yards in the team's first seven games before a hamstring injury sidelined him.
"I want to put all of that injury stuff behind me," Staley said. "The coaching staff and my teammates know what I can do. Would I like to compete for the starting job? Sure. But I don't know that it's in the cards. I'll fill whatever role they want for me."
(Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter)