Just like anything else in sports, there are certain traditions regarding Steelers preseason games that I've become quite familiar with as a fan and usually look forward to.
For example, seeing my favorite football heroes yuck it up on the sidelines while wearing their baseball caps is something I always enjoy and usually expect to see well before the end of the first half.
There was never a more star-studded group of preseason observers than the one occupying the Steelers sidelines in recent years, as some of the greatest players who ever came through Pittsburgh, some future Hall of Famers, mostly all Super Bowl heroes, were the ones enjoying early evenings.
Witnessing the likes of Hines Ward, James Farrior, Aaron Smith and Casey Hampton stand around and shoot the breeze while the "kids," or back-ups, went about trying to earn a bone and not a trip to the pound, there was no doubt that, regardless of the performances of the second and third stringers, those stars wearing their baseball caps gave fans all the confidence in the world that their team was something special and would do them proud during the regular season and in January.
But that was then and this is now. After watching Saturday night's preseason opener against the Giants at Heinz Field, it's quite apparent that these aren't your "Season 4 of The Office" Pittsburgh Steelers, anymore.
Gone, mostly, are the studded stars of recent years, and in their places are many players who are mostly unproven when it comes to championship (or even regular season) success.
It was a little surreal as I watched Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders get their brief work in, early on and then give way to the likes of Markus Wheaton and David Gilreath, because it was only three seasons ago that Brown and Sanders were the pups that inspired Mike Tomlin's "two dogs, one bone" edict and were out there in the third and fourth quarters of preseason games, just trying to get noticed and just trying to avoid the practice squad. Now, they're the stars (or at least the "top dogs" on the depth chart), and they probably make the rookie Wheaton carry their pads back to their dorm rooms.
As I witnessed Alameda Ta'amu replace Steve McLendon at Hampton's old spot and rookie Jarvis Jones take starter Jason Worilds' place at a position that James Harrison once manned with legendary success, I had the same surreal thoughts and couldn't help but feel that a great era was finally over.
Sure, Troy Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Keisel were still around, standing on the sideline with towels around their necks and smiles on their faces, but they were certainly part of a much smaller group than I am used to seeing.
But times change and eras end.
There was a time when someone had to carry Walter Abercrombie's pads back to his dorm for him, and Weegie Thompson was the rookie receiver replacing Calvin Sweeney in the third quarter of a preseason game.
Hopefully, unlike the post-Super Bowl era of the early 80's, the Browns and McLendons of the team can help forge a new championship era in Pittsburgh and add some real cache to their places atop the Steelers' depth charts.
And maybe then it won't seem so weird when they ask rookies to sing for their suppers.
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