By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Friday, October 14, 2011
The Steelers were going to have one last grasp at glory with this aging group. That was the sentiment of just about everyone, as I recall, right about the time Aaron Rodgers was done slicing up their secondary in the Super Bowl.
If that's changed since then, it's only in this way: The Steelers have to see it now, too.
Whether it's on the scoreboard, on the upside-down depth charts, in the video sessions or in the packed trainer's room, it's got to be clear to everyone that this is it. One and done. The NFL's second-oldest roster has been so hyperbolically inconsistent that, even if this 3-2 season ends up a success, it doesn't look sustainable in the slightest.
Fine, then. Embrace the old.
It's worked, that win-one-for-the-Bus atmosphere in which the older players lead that final battle cry.
Be that team.
The Steelers have scoffed at the notion that they're old, as if it's some distorted narrative. But that mindset was what led to the complacency on display in Baltimore, Indianapolis and Houston. They strutted into those cities like cocky teenagers, with neither the passion nor the preparation of their opponents. Contrast that to the humbled, well-prepared, stay-within-yourself veterans who systematically dismantled Tennessee last weekend.
I'll take the humbled version, thanks.
Besides, to my eye, the heart of this team -- Ben Roethlisberger's perseverance aside -- has been embodied by some of the older players.
Chris Hoke couldn't have known this summer if he would return to the Steelers. The burly backup nose tackle was as beloved as anyone on the roster, but being 35 years old and taking a decade's worth of NFL beatings had him unsigned until August.
"I wanted to play," Hoke said. "I'm so glad the Steelers called."
It showed. Before his first drill at Latrobe, Hoke performed his familiar "Hokey Pokey" jig, cracking up teammates and coaches. But he also went to work. One afternoon, I saw Hoke alone on the St. Vincent College grass, bashing three tackling sleds in 80-degree heat as if they were mortal enemies.
The payoff came against Tennessee. In his first start, Hoke was active and aggressive, so solid that some crazily called for starter Casey Hampton to lose his job.
Later in the locker room, I witnessed Hoke's real victory: He politely paused our interview to hug his sons: Cade, 9, and Nathan, 7. The younger, wearing a No. 76 jersey with the nameplate "DAD," looked up at the old man the way that kid in the Coke commercial did at Joe Greene.
"This is what it's all about, man, right here," Hoke said, grinning wider than a chin strap, as he hoisted Nathan up high. "I love these guys. I love playing football. I love playing for the Steelers. For me, to come back and have a game like this, contribute to a win ... this is a big deal for me and my family."
Be that player.
Left tackle Max Starks went "from his couch to a game ball," as offensive coordinator Bruce Arians described it, with a superb debut against Tennessee. But there was more to it. Or less, actually.
Starks is just 29, but he had swelled to 400 pounds, which is still a fifth of a ton even on a 6-foot-8 frame. That had to look to the world like a guy ready to retire, and it's possible the thought at least crossed his mind. But he joined a gym in Arizona and went on a diet that was the rough equivalent of fasting. Just like that, 60 pounds vanished.
"I've achieved a lot in this game, especially being part of two champions," Starks said. "Anybody else might have been happy with that and rode off into the sunset. But I knew I had something left to give to the game of football."
Be that player.
Those guys are hardly isolated examples: James Farrior, 36, had runners blowing by him for a month but made 13 tackles last weekend. Hines Ward, 35, couldn't get open or hold onto the ball but handled both elegantly last weekend. Troy Polamalu, 30, was outraced by a tight end in the opener but was ablaze last weekend.
They realize this won't last beyond the coming winter, that this illustrious group is nearing the end.
We see it, too.
Let's just go with it.