For a franchise that prides itself on stability and consistency, the Steelers are embarking on a season of major change -- the biggest since Mike Tomlin became coach.
Gone are long--time stars Hines Ward, James Farrior and Aaron Smith, not to mention four other major contributors from their Super Bowl teams -- Bryant McFadden, Chris Hoke, Chris Kemoeatu and William Gay.
That's a big chunk of passion, commitment, stardom and leadership ripped not only from the roster, but also from the locker room.
Ward is the team's all-time leading receiver for a franchise that includes two Hall of Fame receivers -- Lynn Swann and John Stallworth. Farrior was the team's defensive captain and the soul of one of the top defenses in the NFL during the 2000s. And Smith was called by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau as the best 3-4 defensive end he has coached.
The trio combined to play for 37 years, in 531 games and were a part of three Super Bowl teams.
Now, the Steelers must move on. Sure, they head into the regular season Sunday with a team still loaded with veteran stars -- Ben Roethlisberger, Heath Miller, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu, not to mention blossoming young stars Maurkice Pouncey, Mike Wallace and Antonio Brown.
But a large piece of them will be missing when they begin their quest for their annual goal -- another run at the Super Bowl. And it might be difficult to quantify the effect the absence of Ward, Smith and Farrior will have on the field -- and off.
"Absolutely," said Keisel, whose rookie season was the same year the Steelers obtained Farrior in free agency from the New York Jets. "They are guys who have been legendary Steelers. But, at the same time, everyone knows this is the nature of the business. Eventually, I'll be gone and someone will step into my shoes. That's just how it goes.
"I've been with those guys for 10 years. There's definitely a void there, personally and professionally. I miss them dearly. But we have to move forward."
The loss of Farrior might be the most significant because he was more of a major contributor last season than Ward, who was demoted midway through the season because the coaches thought his skills had eroded; and Smith, who had another season ended early by injury.
"I think we all under-appreciate James Farrior, what he's meant to the franchise," said linebackers coach Keith Butler, who joined the Steelers in 2003 when Farrior was in his second season with the team. "In the 10 years he was here, he has always been kind of the face of the defense, because of the way he played the game.
"He was a tough, tough competitor. He loved to compete, loved to have fun with his guys, but he knew when to stop clowning around and start playing. His leadership is probably what's going to be missed more than anything."
What's more, as the "buck" linebacker in their 3-4 alignment, Farrior called all the defensive signals and was responsible for making sure the defensive linemen and outside linebackers were lined up correctly.
"He's been our captain as long as I've been here," Keisel said. "The position he plays is so difficult to play. To be able to call the defense, set the defense and then do your job is not an easy task. Those guys that do those things are special guys."
The Steelers already had moved on with the business of replacing Ward and Smith in the lineup. Brown and Emmanuel Sanders bumped Ward to the bench last season, and the Steelers grew accustomed to playing without the oft-injured Smith, even though they didn't like it. He has been replaced by former No. 1 draft choice Ziggy Hood at left defensive end.
Farrior? He will be replaced by his former inside mate and best friend on the team, Larry Foote, who is 32 and begins his 12th NFL season. Foote is not the long-term answer to replacing Farrior; he's just the man until their heir apparent comes along.
"When you have so much success, you have so many guys who are leaders," Foote said. "Hampton's been a leader, Troy Polamalu. But Farrior has always been the cool, weather-the-storm leader. He's always been that guy who, when everyone is going crazy, he was always mellow and kept the guys together. That was his role, and he did it.
"I'm going to try to do my best to imitate him the best way I can."
Ward, Smith and Farrior weren't vocal leaders. They weren't the Joey Porter-type who mouthed off during the week and even louder on game day. They were quiet leaders who led by example, and the tone they set reverberated with their team.
Taylor, who begins his eighth season as thethea starting cornerback, said the Steelers will have no problems filling the void left by the three franchise icons.
"Someone always steps up." Taylor said. "Every year people ask, 'Who can step in?' And someone always does. Before it was Joey, and who's going to be the next vocal leader? And it winds up being James Farrior. Nobody ever put him in that category.
"Now it's a mix of everybody, everybody picking and choosing when the time is right to say something. I feel like I??m taking on that vocal leadership role. It's just over the course of years, it's kind of a wait-in-line, wait-your-turn type of thing. People just respect the work you put on out there on the field."
And that was some work Ward, Smith and Farrior put out there on the field -- and off.
Gerry Dulac: email@example.com; twitter: @gerrydulac First Published September 6, 2012 4:00 AM