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09-05-2008, 11:32 AM
2008 NFL Season Preview: For the Steelers, a changing of the guard
A case study in the NFL Theory of Evolution
Friday, September 05, 2008
Stacy Innerst/Post-Gazette

Salty language is as much a part of football as blocks and tackles, yet the Steelers have banned one particular word from their vocabulary.

It's the T word.

"We never want to use that word transition," linebacker James Farrior said distastefully. "When you start saying 'transition,' I think you're sort of saying we're not really good right now and we're going through a changeover."

How about one out of those two? No one said the Steelers weren't any good. But they are changing. Whether that's enough to constitute a new beginning or the natural process of a football team in the salary cap/free agency era is the question.

Let's take a look at what has happened the past 18 months or so:

A new head coach for the first time in 16 seasons.

The release of popular linebacker Joey Porter and the failure to keep seven-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca or starting outside linebacker Clark Haggans.

The retirement of Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings followed by what appears will be a third starting center in the past three seasons.

A new right tackle, left guard, left outside linebacker and before too long inside linebacker.

A running back drafted in the first round to share time with Willie Parker, and a wide receiver drafted in the second.

The virtual obliteration of the fullback position.

New blocking techniques in the offensive line.

And, soon to come, new team ownership in one form or another.

Those are certainly changes, some significant. But the Steelers rarely have stood pat from year to year since free agency began in 1993. They have taken a philosophy to build from within by trying to sign their own players before they hit free agency and building through the draft, and that's the path they continue to follow today.

Bill Cowher did not make wholesale changes when he became coach in 1992. His biggest moves were to install Neil O'Donnell as his starting quarterback and cut the first-round pick from 1991, Huey Richardson. For the most part, Cowher won in his early years with talent that was in place under Chuck Noll -- Rod Woodson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, Barry Foster, Merrill Hoge, Dermontti Dawson, etc. As the seasons advanced, players left and players arrived through free agency and the draft.

Usually, a quarterback change signals a transformation or transition of a team. Yet the Steelers remained a playoff team as they transitioned over three seasons from O'Donnell in 1995 to Mike Tomczak in '96 to Kordell Stewart and an AFC championship game home appearance in '97. The same held true when they went from Tommy Maddox to Ben Roethlisberger.

If this is a so-called transition period for the Steelers, they are doing so with Roethlisberger starting his fifth season, Farrior his 12th (seventh with the Steelers), Hines Ward and Deshea Townsend their 11th, Aaron Smith his 10th, Marvel Smith his ninth, Casey Hampton his eighth, and Larry Foote, Jeff Reed and Kendall Simmons their seventh.

Yes, the Steelers have some youngsters breaking into the lineup such as second-year linebackers LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons, rookie running back Rashard Mendenhall, third-year tackle Willie Colon and second-year tight end Matt Spaeth.

But this is far from a team in transition the way, say, the Baltimore Ravens were two years after they won their only Super Bowl.

"I feel like it's just a natural process of the game," said Farrior, 33, the defensive captain. "Every year, we're getting older, and you have to bring young guys in to keep pace with the rest of the league."

Even some of their new starters aren't the classic young players moving in. Center Justin Hartwig enters his seventh NFL season and turns 30 Nov. 21. Chris Kemoeatu, who replaces Faneca at left guard, enters his fourth NFL season and, if he's not signed, can leave as an unrestricted free agent in March. James Harrison, who so successfully replaced Joey Porter at right outside linebacker as a first-year starter last season, is 30.

Both young and old players would not describe what's occurring as a transition for the Steelers.

"It's just the evolution of a team," Colon said. "It's one of those things where you have to keep up with the talent pool."

"It's kind of a natural thing," said tight end Heath Miller, who enters his fourth season. "If you look at every team across the NFL, somewhere along the board new guys step in and are filling those roles.

"I don't know if I like the word transition, but definitely we'll have some new faces out there and we expect them to perform at the same level."

The last time the Steelers tried a true transition, it failed. Miserably. Cowher and offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey wanted to spread things out on offense and use a lot of no-huddle to take advantage of what they felt were the strengths of Maddox at quarterback.

They installed Amos Zereoue as their starting halfback over Jerome Bettis and wanted newly acquired free agent Jay Riemersma over Mark Bruener at tight end. Both of those moves were designed to be able to spread out the offense and reduce third-down substitutions.

A 6-10 record followed, and Cowher reverted to his power offense in 2004 and went 15-1 with a rookie quarterback.

Tomlin resisted wholesale change when he replaced Cowher in 2007. He had coached under 4-3 defensive schemes and he could have installed that with the Steelers. Instead, he kept coordinator Dick LeBeau and most of his defensive staff, stuck with the 3-4, and it remains that way this season. On offense, he promoted wide receivers coach Bruce Arians to coordinator and kept the tight ends coach.

What could have been a natural period of transformation under a new head coach looked little different except for the main man standing on their sideline.

"How do I see it? I see it as that's how football goes," said Woodley, 23. "There's always transition after a certain amount of years. You have new people coming in, and old people going out. That's part of the game.

"You look at our team, there are a lot of veteran guys around. That's how you keep the tradition, the veteran guys kind of teach the young guys like myself how things go around here. We stay around for a while and we'll continue to pass it around, and people will know about the Steelers' tradition."

Ward has been the Steelers' leading receiver since 1999, his second year. Santonio Holmes, entering his third season, outgained him last season, but Ward still led the team with 71 receptions, 19 more than Holmes. This year, Limas Sweed enters the mix as their second-round pick.

"Just because you're older doesn't mean you still can't go out and get it done," Ward said. "I like to think James Farrior is still a great linebacker. He's still the heart and soul of that defense, him and Casey Hampton, both in their 30s.

"You mix in great talent with Timmons and Woodley and you try to learn from those veteran guys what it takes week to week. You get a guy with a lot of talent, he may not know how to practice day in and day out. It's a great way to mix in, to pass the torch to younger guys."

The Steelers seem to have the right mix of old and young. They've never had to blow things up and start over and they certainly are not doing that now. They are evolving, but in the NFL, teams that don't evolve die. The salary cap forces teams to go younger than they might have in the 1970s and '80s, and free agency forces them to find new blood to replace the departed.

If anything, the Steelers have avoided the large turnover that others have experienced, either through mass defections or massive signings as owners searched for a quick fix.

"You have a lot of guys here, for the most part, they stay here longer than most do," said Townsend. "A lot of times you hear about more action from other teams with guys going different places. You have guys stay longer here."

Even Faneca, Townsend noted, did not leave until he put in 10 years with the Steelers.

"It's kind of unheard of in this day and age for core guys to stay that long," Townsend said.

That does not mean there won't be even more changes next season. The Steelers could lose Kemoeatu, Marvel Smith, Max Starks, Trai Essex, Nate Washington and Bryant McFadden to free agency in March. Each enters the final season of his contract.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com.