Their future as Steelers is in doubt after Sunday's loss in AFC title game.
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- Plaxico Burress seems convinced that he has played his final game with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Jerome Bettis isn't so sure.
Bettis, whose comeback following two disappointing seasons was a highlight of the Steelers' unexpectedly good season, addressed his teammates during an emotional team meeting Monday that left Hines Ward in tears.
While Bettis insists he hasn't made up his mind to retire, Ward fears the Steelers' 41-27 loss to New England in the AFC championship game Sunday night was The Bus' final game. The Steelers' 15-1 regular-season record and franchise-best 15-game winning streak bettered anything produced by their four Super Bowl championship teams of the 1970s.
Missing The Bus
The thought of the Steelers being without Bettis, especially after he fell one game short of the Super Bowl for the third time with Pittsburgh, left Ward visibly distraught.
"We put it all on the line," Ward said Monday, tears streaming down his face. "It's disappointing. I wanted to win more than anything for him. He deserves to be a champion."
Burress, the Steelers' top downfield threat, apparently doesn't think they will make a major effort to re-sign him. He is also disappointed with the limited number of throws that came his way Sunday, though he dropped a fade pass in the end zone that would have gotten Pittsburgh to within 34-27 early in the fourth quarter.
"It's Pittsburgh, which speaks for itself. They're not going to change," Burress said. "I'm not going to change. Three or four balls just doesn't suit me very well."
By contrast, Bettis never criticized coach Bill Cowher's decision to start Duce Staley for the first half of the season. That team-first attitude and Bettis' seven consecutive 100-yard games after Staley was hurt left a major impression on his teammates.
Bettis was in his best shape in years, not missing any games due to injury while averaging nearly 113 yards in his eight starts. His footwork and ability to cut also were visibly better than they were a season ago. Bettis played in his third AFC title-game loss in Pittsburgh in eight seasons.
"I'm still in the middle of the road," said Bettis, who will be 33 next month. "I need to get away from it and the loss and just take some time away."
Bettis said he talked to his teammates not to tell them goodbye, but because it might be the last time this group of Steelers would be together.
"I need to look at it and let my body tell me what to do," Bettis said. "If physically I can come back and be as productive as I was this year, then that's something that I would like to do. But if I can't, then I don't want to be out there and I don't want to take away from this football team."
The Steelers must restructure Bettis' contract again if he returns. After they signed Staley in March, Bettis agreed to cut his pay from $3.7 million to $1 million to keep the team under the salary cap.
Bettis is due to make $4,484,000, with a cap value of $5,484,000, in 2005. Staley, the starter until injuring a hamstring Oct. 31, will make $2,150,000 next season.
Burress' departure after five seasons would take away quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's top deep threat and would require the Steelers to add another receiver via the draft or free agency.
Antwaan Randle El would replace Burress as a starter, but at 5-foot-10 he is 7 inches shorter than Burress and does not create the matchup problems Burress does for smaller defensive backs.
Burress missed five of Pittsburgh's last six regular-season games with a sore hamstring, causing him to finish with 35 catches -- 43 fewer than two seasons ago. Ward was Pittsburgh's top receiver with 80 catches and made the Pro Bowl for a fourth consecutive season.
"Everybody keeps telling me what an important person I am on this football team, but you can't justify that for me right now," Burress said. "Just look at the whole season -- it speaks for itself."
The pivotal play of the most surprising season in franchise history turned out to be quarterback Tommy Maddox's elbow injury during a 30-13 loss to Baltimore on Sept. 19. That forced the Steelers to play rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger at least a year ahead of schedule, and nobody in the league expected him to play like this.
Roethlisberger was 14-0 until losing Sunday, easily the best season by a rookie quarterback in NFL history.
"The kid will learn. He is going to be a good quarterback, and it is a very tough learning experience," coach Bill Cowher said.
Roethlisberger admittedly has much to work on despite all he accomplished as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. His production fell off sharply as the season wound down, from 12 touchdown passes and four interceptions in his first 10 starts to six touchdowns passes and 10 interceptions in his last five -- including five interceptions in playoff games against the Jets and Patriots.
"It's going to be a big offseason for me to go back and reflect on how I played, how I should have played and to just try to get better," he said. "Hopefully, we will be better next year."