"The guys who came before us Dermontti Dawson, Levon Kirkland, Greg Lloyd, Jerome Bettis, Kordell, all those guys, they taught myself, Brett Kesiel, Aaron, James, what it takes to approach practice each day, to get to that goal and that's to win the Super Bowl." - Hines Ward, during his retirement press conference
The mere mention of the name "Greg Lloyd" immediately brought a smile to my face when Hines Ward uttered those words deep into his retirement press conference.
That's because Greg Lloyd was, is and always will be one of my favorite Pittsburgh Steelers. He was a true great who first upheld and then added his own contribution to the Steelers Linebacker Legacy, a fraternity that includes the likes of Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, Andy Russell, Robin Cole, David Little, Joey Porter and James Harrison.
Lloyd, along with the other mentioned by Ward knocked on heaven's door but fell short of a Super Bowl. Its only fitting Lloyd and those other Steelers greats from the ‘90's get their just due from a future Hall of Famer recognizing them for helping show him the way.
Except when it comes to Lloyd there's a problem...
Greg Lloyd and Hines Ward never played together.
Pittsburgh drafted Ward in April 1998. The only point where their paths crossed was the Steelers mini-camp, when Lloyd shocked everyone by limping through Mini-camp that spring.
Bill Cowher's praise of Lloyd for simply making it onto the field was heart warming the field, but praise couldn't paper over Ed Bouchette's reports that one side of Lloyd's body was noticeably emaciated.
The Steelers cut Greg Lloyd before Hines Ward even checked into his room at St. Vincents.
So why would Ward mention Greg Lloyd in his retirement speech, and what does that tell us?
Remembering the Legacy of Greg Lloyd
It'd be fanciful to suggest that witnessing Lloyd's physical sacrifice made a lasting impression the rookie from Georgia's work ethic. And perhaps there'd even be some truth to that.
Greg Lloyd was a Gladiator trapped in a football player's body. He could demand 100% from his teammates because demanded even more from himself.
Lloyd never spared the enemy no quarter. Jerry Olsavsky tells a story from his rookie season with the 1989 Steelers, where he reached down to help up a rusher after tackling him only to have Greg Lloyd slap his hand away commanding "We don't do that here."
So perhaps the spirit of Greg Lloyd did live on in those bone crunching blocks of Hines Ward that we will miss come September.
Even if the above scenario is little more than hero-worship inspired wishful thinking, Ward's mention of Lloyd still tells us something important.
Leadership Void Plagues the 1998 and 1999 Pittsburgh Steelers
And the simple fact is that the Steelers missed Greg Lloyd's leadership during the dark days of 1998 and 1999.
People tend to lump both of those seasons together as one amorphous mass of Kordell Stewart regressing and free agent defections coming home to roost, with Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher's feud simmering beneath the surface.
Fans forget that the 1998 Steelers actually played like a strong team at times. People forget that those Steelers were 7-5 and in the thick of the AFC Central race before the botched Thanksgiving Coin Toss triggered a total implosion.
I was convinced then and remain convinced now that, while problems with talent deficiency and front office feuding were real, a leadership void hurt the '98 Steelers more than anything else.
Up to that point Bill Cowher teams, for whatever their flaws, always won the close ones (in the regular season at least.)
That changed on an October day in 1998, during the Steelers first rematch vs. Neil O'Donnell. Everyone remembers how O'Donnell suckered the Steelers with a fake spike as time was expiring, and threw a 25 yard game winning TD pass to Carl Pickens.
One of the more distasteful moments of the era, no doubt.
But it was what happened a couple of three plays before that to set up O'Donnell's fait accompli that bothered me. The Steelers had played three downs of shut-down quality defense to back the Bengals up at their own 15 on 4th and 12 with 75s second remaining.
On fourth down O'Donnell hit Carl Pickens on a streak pattern, and the Bengals lived to fight again.
Instead of responding with determination, the Steelers reacted with exasperation, if body language provides any gauge. At that very moment, I knew there was trouble. And all I could think of is, "We need a Greg Lloyd to fire up the troops. Right now."
- It wasn't the only time I felt that way.
As said above, many factors contributed to the Steelers late-season implosion.
But what gets lost in the haze of that 0-5 finish is the fact that the Steelers four of those opponents were weak teams and those games were eminently winnable.
I can remember someone writing into the Steelers Digest as the streak went into full bloom declaring something like, "Cowher's got to realize this isn't the playoff veteran laden squad he had a few years ago which means he must take this team by the collective collar and shake some life into it."
- Whoever he or she is who wrote that was dead on.
The sad fact is that the Steelers, or many of them, quit down the stretch.
NFL football is brutal and when you're in a tail spin the urge to quit has got to be strong. But it is an urge that strong-locker room leaders nip in the bud.
The 1999 season for the Steelers was far worse as Pittsburgh could only briefly feign contender status at mid-season. The leadership void was one of the legion issues that plagued that team.
Spectacles such as Bobby Shaw pulling up his jersey to reveal a Superman sit underneath after scoring a meaningless touchdown at the end of a meaningless game cried for the need for a locker room enforcer.
Without naming names Lee Flowers went so far as to call out teammates for quitting late in the season.
This kind of nonsense was absent during the Steelers 2003 and 2006 seasons, their worst efforts since 1999, and in large part that was because of stronger locker room leadership (in addition to the maturation of Bill Cowher as a coach.)
The Lesson Behind Hines Ward's Words
The leadership void created by Greg Lloyd's departure did get filled, by men like Joey Porter, James Farrior and of course Hines Ward himself.
But there's a lesson there.
The locker room leadership replacement process did not happen overnight.
That's important to keep in mind as the Steelers prepare to embark on the 2012 campaign.
The decisions to part ways with Hines Ward, James Farrior, and Aaron Smith were necessary for a football and financial standpoint.
But all three were important leaders whose presence the team cannot avoid missing.
The general response to this is "In Rooney-Colbert-Tomlin We Trust." And to some extent that's a reasonable reaction.
New locker room leaders will emerge. But it is a mistake for Steelers Nation to assume it will happen automatically.