Leadership is commonly defined as the social ability to engage others in a common task, an ability to cause others to participate in a common goal. A leader is capable of uniting his forces to achieve a shared desire. How does this pertain to football? Fixating 53 unique individuals upon a singular objective is a challenging task. Considering the various motivations for one’s participation in the sport, uniting all under one banner is no simple undertaking. The variety of personalities involved also adds a layer of difficulty. What makes one player respond will not work on others, and so one leader cannot do it alone. It takes a special breed of human being to assume a leadership role and guide his colleagues to the finish line.
I’ve been feeling rather nostalgic recently. I found myself performing my quarterly ritual of watching our Super Bowl victories of the past decade. 2008’s championship already feels like a long time ago, and appropriately so given the 4 year gap between titles. We came close in 2010, but we have yet to even secure our division since then. Consider me spoiled, but I feel that there has been a decided decline in our play, one that merits some further consideration.
Recently the coaches have come under fire. I cannot exclude myself from this realm, as I too have criticized Tomlin and wondered if the coaching is to blame for recent struggles. We’d do well to recall that Tomlin already has a Super Bowl ring with us. Cowher won in 2005 after years of frustration. These are quality coaches who have the ability to lead. Injuries have no doubt played a critical role in our late-year slides that occurred in 2011 an most recently over the last few weeks. But try to find a year where not a single starter was injured. It’s impossible. Even in 2005 Ben Roethlisberger went down, and in 2008 we went into the Super Bowl with hampered players and an offensive line in shambles.
These commonalities between our winning seasons beg me to look for a missing link. What did those teams have that this team doesn’t? What element did they possess that we currently lack? One of the key trends I noticed in our previous Super Bowl wins was the element of leadership from within. Team leaders in many ways are as important as coaches, if not moreso.
Coaches prepare an entire team for battle, they are the commanders in chief and make the sweeping decisions that affect everyone on the field. But what about the captains ON the field who make calls and judgments immediately from their pool of experience? The Steelers have lost a considerable portion of this on the field leadership, and it’s a component of our football team that seems to have been forgotten. Yet this quality is a critical, albeit intangible one that can determine the outcome of a franchise.
I can recall quite clearly prior to this year many a fan worrying about the lack of seniority among defense and offensive players. Over the last several years we’ve seen the departure of Hines Ward, Jerome Bettis, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, Alan Faneca, Joey Porter, among other seasoned veterans. Our concern over their loss was valid. These men were the voices of the team, they were the men who took command of the team between downs and made sure everyone executed to their full potential. None of us will forget Porter stirring every proverbial pot he could find as he stimulated our defense to new heights. Ward’s bone crushing blocks and hard-nosed attitude will forever be remembered by us as a model for classic Steeler football. Faneca led an O-line, making sure everyone did their job. Jerome Bettis showed us what it was like to dominate, never give up, and earn a trophy as a champion. He inspired Ben to play to his full potential in order to get Bettis that super bowl ring. Not only did these prolific players perpetuate our fundamental play, but they were men who OTHERS would play FOR.
War movies often feature the clichéd but true component of brotherhood playing a key role in battle. The general in charge is often seen as a leader, one that men will fight for. But more often than not the soldiers are more motivated by their fellow squad members. Perhaps a reader in the armed forces can tell us if this is just Hollywood drama or real life. I imagine it does matter. When you care about your comrades in such fashion, it makes you work to take care of them and not let them down.
The aforementioned brothers-in-arms were a major part of the success we had in the previous decade. The landscape has changed dramatically since those years, which seem far away despite their relative recentness. Gone are these powerful voices that could compel the Steelers to victory even when faced with adversity. Who is left on the team that stands out as a true leader and guide through this period of relative darkness? The Steelers have gotten much younger on both sides of the ball. Ben and Starks are the oldest starters on offense. After Colon who is 28, there’s nary a man over 25. Even as we retain experience on defense, a major influx of youth has occurred at every position.
This leaves a major gap in this area of on the field leadership, and it’s one that I think has been to our detriment. Leaders are not simply found, they emerge and take control. With the extremely rare exceptions of players like Peyton Manning, you can’t just go out and ‘buy’ a leader. Leaders rise up and set an example for others to follow. They endear themselves to their teammates and in turn their colleagues fight to avoid disappointing their figurehead.
Who are the Steelers’ on the field leaders today? Ryan Clark is certainly a vocal and physical guide for the defense in Troy Polamalu’s absence. Beyond him though, who else do you see as a profound role model or a person who others will play lights out for? Farrior had a commanding role on our defense and led the attack play after play, rarely leaving the field. Foote has filled in admirably but lacks the consistent performance. Hampton’s experience is there, but his time on the field is such that he cannot be a real leader over the course of a 60 minute game. Men like Harrison appear to keep more to themselves and seem distant from the rest of the team.
Offensively, Pouncey is perhaps ready to emerge as the offensive line’s head. He seems to be taking his job seriously, and with another hard working student of the game in DeCastro showing up, they might be able to form a dynamic duo that turns our offense around. Will one of our receivers step up to fill Hines Ward’s vacancy? Brown seems to have the potential to do so. The offense still lacks a Bettis type character who everyone seems to want to play for, a man that nobody wants to fail. Ben’s on the field skill is unfortunately shadowed by some of his personality traits that seem off putting at times. He is respected, acknowledged, but I don’t think he’s loved. Contrary to my frequent writings, I think a close bond is necessary between players.
Until these leaders arrive, our team will not be the powerhouse it once was. Tomlin may be a leader of men, but those men also have to lead each other. As I said in the beginning, focusing 53 people to get one thing done is not easy. Many hands make the load light, and if there’s one leader to 53 players, the odds are that many will end up unfocused and unmotivated. When more leaders are on the field, the work is divided and successfully conquered. No leader was made overnight, and so it will take time for our young players to rise into those positions of guidance. The sooner they do, the sooner we’ll be holding up another Lombardi trophy.