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Bettis, George at career crossroads

Soft lighting falls out of the trees outside the offices of Nashville Lifestyles magazine. Flowers bloom and grass grows, and it’s all because the Tennessee Titans’ Eddie George can do more with his life than run with a football under his arm.

“It was his vision, what would live, what would work,” said Stacie Standifer, the magazine publisher whose offices were part of George’s first project as a moonlighting landscape designer. “He included irrigation and some lighting work, which will allow me to have front-yard signage when I want it. There’s also lighting in the trees that comes on at night, which provides a safety factor when we have to work late.”

George, the fifth-leading active rusher in the NFL with 9,166 yards, is wisely preparing for life after football. After today’s game against the Steelers at Heinz Field, he will be one-quarter of the way through his eighth NFL season. The question many people are asking is this: Is he a better landscape designer than a running back these days•

In other words: Is he slowing down•

“That’s pretty much a tired topic,” said George, who has a degree in landscape architecture from Ohio State. “At this point, it’s either you’re riding with me, or you’re not. I feel like this is the prime of my life and the prime of my career, and there are a lot of bigger things in store for me. So when I hear that stuff, I just remember that at some point in time, every athlete who plays this game is going to hear something like that.”

You don’t need to remind Steelers running back Jerome Bettis, who is George’s friendly adversary when their teams get together. Bettis, an 11-year veteran who has lost his starting job to Amos Zereoue, also has critics who believe he’s either too old, too big or too worn to be an effective runner.

But there is life in both pairs of those old legs. On the same afternoon last Sunday, George and Bettis led their teams to victories. After taking only 35 handoffs in the first two games, George carried 29 times for 100 yards and a touchdown to help the Titans defeat the New Orleans Saints, 27-12. Bettis sat out the first half of the Steelers’ 17-10 victory in Cincinnati but ended up carrying 16 times for 59 yards and a touchdown.

Nothing spectacular, just effective.

The Titans and Steelers no longer rely heavily on the running game. Quarterbacks Steve McNair and Tommy Maddox are the cornerstones of both offenses. The running backs, especially Bettis, are almost afterthoughts, at least in the minds of many fans.

“It’s unfortunate that people are posing those questions when the offenses are taking a turn,” Bettis said. “McNair is handling the ball more, and it’s not a situation where (George) is unable to do it. It’s a situation where the offense is evolving and is less needy on him to be the workhorse. So, because of that, the assumption is he can’t do it anymore. But that’s nowhere near the case.”

Many people also consider Bettis unable to shoulder a heavy workload, and Steelers coach Bill Cowher appears to be one of them. By demoting Bettis to the second team, he has allowed him only 24 carries for 80 yards in three games. That’s roughly his career average for one game prior to this season (21 carries, 84 yards).

Injuries in the past two seasons and now the changing face of the Steelers’ offense have robbed Bettis of his opportunities.

“People say those things, but they say them without a person having the opportunity,” said Bettis, who is second behind Emmitt Smith among active rushers with 11,622 yards.

Does Bettis still have to prove his worth•

“I don’t think I have to,” he said. “I don’t plan to. I don’t try to. Everybody knows what I’m capable of doing. I don’t think that’s an issue. It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity. People see I can still take care of business.”

That said, Bettis believes his backup role could extend his career.

“It takes a lot of pressure off me physically,” he said, adding he plans to return next season to fulfill the fourth year of a six-year, $30 million Steelers contract he signed in 2001. “I look for it.”

George, a Pennsylvania high and low hurdle champion at Abington High School who could have attended Penn State as a linebacker, also appears capable of stretching his career beyond this season. He celebrated his 30th birthday Wednesday, and Bettis, who will be 32 in February, called to congratulate him.

The players share the same agent (Lamont Smith), stay in touch regularly and occasionally visit with each other in the offseason.

“Eddie was a Jerome Bettis fan when I was in college,” Bettis said. “For him to tell me something like that, first of all, I’m getting old, but second of all, it’s an honor.”

Their careers have run parallel paths, with Bettis getting traded to the Steelers in 1996 on the day the Houston Oilers (now the Titans) drafted George with their first-round pick. Since then, Bettis has rushed for 8,531 yards and 50 touchdowns, while George has 9,166 and 60.

Titans coach Jeff Fisher said George has changed and is a “more patient” runner than he was a few years ago. Plus, a decreased workload will keep George fresh as he ventures into his 30s.

“We are not as hard-headed as we were in the past,” Fisher said, “and as a result, there may be some games when Eddie George comes out and when the game is all said and done, he has 15-18 carries. He is still a team player and all he wants to do is win.”

Both backs were fortunate to be with teams that emphasized the running game, even if the emphasis is fading.

“If we hadn’t been in these offenses,” Bettis said, “we wouldn’t be around so long.”

HELPFUL REMINDERS


  • Kickoff is 1 p.m. Team and stadium management urges people to arrive early, due to the implementation of security measures at the gates.

  • Reserved parking lots around the stadium open at 8 a.m.

  • The Fort Pitt Tunnels are open to inbound and outbound traffic for Downtown parking and stadium access.

  • There are numerous parking spaces available Downtown and in the Strip District, Allegheny Center and Station Square. The Gateway Clipper operates water shuttles from Station Square.

  • North Shore Drive around Heinz Field is limited to incoming traffic before the game and outgoing traffic after the game.

  • Art Rooney Avenue on the stadium’s east side is closed to all vehicular traffic.

  • Coolers, thermoses, bags, backpacks and purses larger than 8×11 inches are prohibited. Small purses, small camera cases, binocular cases and diaper bags are permitted but are subject to inspection. All bags that do not pass security must be returned to vehicles.


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