by Barry Wilner
AP Pro Football Writer
LATROBE, Pa. (AP)—Jerricho Cotchery hears “the voice.” Troy Polamalu senses the “phantom leadership.”
It’s all part of the Steelers Way.
Few organizations boast the stability and winning tradition of the Steelers. Try just three coaches in 43 years. Try the same family in charge—the Rooneys. It’s gone from the Chief, Art Rooney, to his son Dan, to his grandson, Art II, the current team president.
In the Super Bowl era, they have gone home with the Lombardi Trophy a record six times in eight appearances. If you want consistency on and off the field in the NFL, look at Pittsburgh.
Yet, there is a sense of transition in the Steel City this year. Gone are some key leaders, particularly all-time leading receiver Hines Ward, now retired, and stalwart linebacker James Farrior. The powerful running game that for years— decades—was emblematic of the Steelers’ offense could be in disarray.
There also seems to be transition within the AFC North that Pittsburgh has owned pretty much since the NFL went to its current format in 2002. Baltimore edged the Steelers for the division title last year and is considered the favorite to repeat. Cincinnati is regarded as a team on the rise. And there are many questions surrounding these Steelers.
Not to worry, star safety Polamalu says.
“You could say there is a transition after every season because the team won’t be exactly the same from year to year,” says the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year. “But I would answer the same way as I did the last nine years: The new challenge is exciting. I think it will be an exciting season. It’s going to be exciting to see how the players fit in, especially in the secondary, and how healthy we are.
“You either survive and you push on, or you adjust the best you can.”
The Steelers (No. 7 in the AP Pro32) have an edge in making the adjustments, too.
“What’s also unique is what I would call the ‘phantom leadership’ that is in the tradition of the Steelers,” he adds with a smile. “It’s the way we do things around here and the way they have always done things, a certain way that works. It dates back to Joe Greene and those days. It’s something that is real.
“So there’s that tradition that we have that sort of ‘phantom leadership’ out of the past.
“We don’t need the rah-rah guy or the guy who is the ‘face of the franchise.’ We’re not pushing people to be out front. Be yourself, lead in your own way.”
Leadership rarely has been an issue in the Steel City. And it might not be now with Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, Ben Roethlisberger and Heath Miller still around. Just the fact it is being mentioned, though, is different.
Although Pittsburgh went 12-4 last season, when neither Ward, Farrior nor now-retired defensive end Aaron Smith made much impact, it was not an impressive 12-4, if you can imagine that. The Steelers looked old, slow and not especially resourceful in their wild-card loss to Denver in the playoffs.
Seven months later, Roethlisberger—as much a key to these Steelers as Terry Bradshaw was in the latter years of the Steel Curtain dynasty of the 1970s—is banged up (left ankle, rotator cuff). They are searching for a running game with starting tailback Rashard Mendenhall healing from a severe knee injury, and need to discover some continuity on the offensive line.
And with deep threat Mike Wallace holding out, the receiving corps is missing an important element, although it remains a strength with Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Miller and Cotchery.
Plus, the defense probably will have seven starters over 30: Polamalu, Taylor, Clark, Harrison, Brett Keisel, Larry Foote and Casey Hampton.
Despite all those questions, the one topic that doesn’t seem to concern anyone is a loss of leadership.
“We’ve been through this before,” 10th-year cornerback Taylor says. “When Joey Porter left, James Farrior stepped in. Our team never is without leaders.”
Or voices in the locker room.
“What I learned from the older guys when I got here was you have got to pass it on,” Foote adds. “Leadership is something I’’ve learned from being in the league for 11 years, and that there are all kinds of (leaders). There were a lot of personalities on this team, guys who have been here the last decade, and now they are gone. So others step up. It’s a changing of the guard.”
Change can be good in pro football, even for a franchise so steeped in tradition; some might say so set in its ways. Rarely have the Steelers been potentially so dynamic in the passing game, and certainly not since Bradshaw, Lynn Swann and John Stallworth left.
They tend to excel at developing their draft choices, with Roethlisberger, Polamalu, Miller and Hampton prime examples. Brown and young center Maurkice Pouncey are following that trend.
Several important pieces are in their prime, including linebacker LaMarr Woodley, possibly their most dynamic defender, and Roethlisberger.
Cotchery, an outsider who joined the Steelers last year as a free agent, was drawn to Pittsburgh not only by what he saw on the roster, but by something a bit more nebulous.
“This organization is unique,” says Cotchery, who was with the Jets before heading to Pittsburgh. “It has a certain way of doing things over a long period that works, and they stick to it. And the result: six Super Bowls. And working on more.
“I appreciate the tradition and the history of this organization and the way they have carried themselves. That drew me to the organization; they are loyal to their guys.
“To me, the voice is kept here. No one else comes in with a different voice and no one talks over this voice. It’s the Steelers voice.”