And the leaders are ...

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First, there was Jerome Bettis, who ranks with Joe Greene as one of the great leaders in Steelers history. His former teammates don't care that he faked an injury in the 2000 training camp so he wouldn't be released. Every time they think back to Feb. 5, 2006 -- to the night they hoisted the Super Bowl trophy in Detroit -- they're thankful he did.

Then, there was Joey Porter. "There will never be another one like him," Steelers linebacker Larry Foote was saying last week. "He was one of kind in what he brought to this team. He opened his door to everyone. We were his guys. He didn't listen to his own hype. He was just a real person."

And now there is?

"Oh, we have enough chiefs," Foote said. "You don't have to worry about that. That isn't a problem."

The Steelers' locker room still is strong despite the losses of Bettis and Kimo von Oelhoffen after the Super Bowl season of '05 and Porter and Jeff Hartings after last season. There isn't the dominant personality of a Bettis or a Porter, but there will be plenty of options for new coach Mike Tomlin when he picks his team captains before the opener in Cleveland Sept. 9.

Ben Roethlisberger drew several votes in my exhaustive poll of the players. (OK, I talked to more than just Foote). It's not so much because he's a wise old veteran; in some ways, at 25 and entering his fourth NFL season, he's still a big goofy kid. "He's the quarterback. That automatically makes him our leader," wide receiver Hines Ward said.

Defensive end Aaron Smith also was mentioned by numerous sources. That might surprise you because he doesn't get a lot of press. "I really don't like the attention." But he's huge among his teammates. "I don't think he's ever had a bad game," Foote said.

It was Smith whom former coach Bill Cowher chose to speak to the squad the morning of the New Orleans game last season when the Steelers were 2-6 and fading fast. Smith got so emotional during that meeting that he cried. Who knows what impact it had on the 38-31 win later that day or the Steelers' 6-2 finish to the season? But this much is certain: "Aaron doesn't say much, but when he does, everybody listens," nose tackle Chris Hoke said.

It must be a defensive lineman thing.

Cowher asked von Oelhoffen -- an enormous presence in the locker room -- to speak to the team the night before the Steelers played the Denver Broncos in the AFC championship game after the '05 season.

Talk about speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

Guard Alan Faneca -- the Steelers' most decorated player, at least in terms of Pro Bowls -- knows all about that. He was the players' choice as an offensive captain the past three seasons under Cowher, when the voting was more of a democratic process, and, he, ordinarily, would be an easy choice for Tomlin, as well. But these aren't ordinary times for Faneca. He's bitter toward management about his contract status as he heads into his final season before free agency. He said in the spring during his explosive minicamp rant that he couldn't imagine being a captain for an organization that no longer wants him.

"It doesn't matter. Alan will always be a captain to us if he has the title or not," Ward said. "That's how much the guys respect him."

Ward is certain to be one of Tomlin's picks, which is only appropriate, Hoke said. "Hines is the one guy who always seems to be speaking up for us. He has our backs."

Ward also had the second-most votes in our survey.

"It's one thing to talk," Hoke said. "Hines backs it up every day in practice and the games by how hard he plays."

That leaves just one player, the winner of our little poll.

Would you believe a "Potsie" is going to lead the Steelers this season?

"Definitely, Potsie," Ward said.

"Easily, Potsie, no question," cornerback Deshea Townsend said.

It's a role linebacker James Farrior takes seriously.

Yes, he's Potsie, nicknamed after the character from the old "Happy Days" television show.

"It's important because there are a lot of young guys looking up to you and following your example," Farrior said, quietly, which is how he says just about everything.

The man definitely isn't as loud as Porter was. Nor is he as popular with the media as Bettis was. But maybe those are two reasons he's so admired by his teammates. How do you not admire quiet strength? The players are suckers for it. They voted Farrior one of their defensive captains the past three seasons.

"The coaches can only tell you so much," Townsend said. "James shows you. 'This is how we do it here. This is the right way.' If you're a young guy and you watch James, you learn quick."

"They should be watching his every move," safety Troy Polamalu said. "Same thing with Hines and Alan. They've been very successful for this team in this city for a long time."

You should have seen a clearly moved Farrior blush.

"I guess this means I must be the oldest guy on the team," he said.

No, just the most respected.

Ron Cook can be reached at .


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