We all tend to think that the way things are when we first become aware of them is the way things will always be. I supported Richard Nixon in the ‘72 election, the first I was aware of, not because I knew anything about politics, but because he was the president. (And rumor had it McGovern was in favor of year-round schools.) Ali, in my mind, would always be the champ, AJ Foyt would always win the Indy 500. And Terry Bradshaw would always be the Steelers’ quarterback.
That sense of immutability was both confirmed and shaken near the end of the ‘83 season when, like Rocky Balboa getting off the canvas, Walt Frazier coming out of the locker room, Curt Schilling bleeding at the ankle, Bradshaw pulled out a victory over the Jets with a wounded wing that had just two more touchdown passes in it. He won the game because he was the quarterback. But at the end, he was done for good and was the quarterback no more.
Sometimes the transition goes smoothly -- other times it does not. When Swann and Stallworth pushed out Frank Lewis and Ron Shanklin, that was quite an upgrade. When Sam Washington replaced Mel Blount, not so much. While we have every reason to expect success in a given season, we shouldn’t expect every position to be one where a Pro Bowler, as his day in the sun ends graciously, hands the baton to the next Pro Bowler.
There was a long gap between Bradshaw and our having even a competent quarterback in Neil O’Donnell, let alone the wait for another Hall of Famer in Big Ben Roethlisberger. On the other hand, we have been fortunate that from 1989 to 2012 we had exactly three seasons where our right outside linebacker was not Greg Lloyd, Joey Porter or James Harrison. In like manner from 1975 to the present, the Steelers have had all of 12 seasons in which at least one of their starting receivers wasn’t worthy of the Hall of Fame -- Swann, Stallworth, Hines Ward and Antonio Brown.
All of which ought to lead us not to lose sight of the good fortune of having a gifted front office. It’s quite possible, even in the NFL, for a team to get lucky and become a flash-in-the-pan. But success year by year, decade by decade, stems from an effective transition. In our case, the transition from Chuck Noll to Bill Cowher to Mike Tomlin -- and a still more vital transition -- from the Chief, to Dan Rooney to Art Rooney II.
We don’t expect any radical changes in the makeup of the roster this season. But changes are coming. Le’Veon Bell will be taking his talents elsewhere. Big Ben will, in the coming years, start to run down. Their replacements might be in Latrobe right now preparing for future greatness. They might be on some college campus getting ready for a new season. We don’t know. What we know is that we have reason to trust the process. For all our ranting and raving in the moment against Tomlin, Colbert or Rooney, it’s good to be thankful and hopeful.