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Starkey: Where are the next great Steelers?

| Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013, 11:06 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers defensive tackle Ziggy Hood plays against the Chiefs on Saturday, Aug. 24, 2013, at Heinz Field.

Steelers Fridays used to feel big. The post-practice locker room was a blast furnace of positive energy. Another game — another opportunity for victory — beckoned.

It was louder than usual on Fridays. Friendly battles broke out everywhere: basketball with a rolled-up towel, shuffleboard, pingpong, pool. Insults flew. Laughter rained. James Harrison even spoke to reporters (sometimes).

The drudgery of the work week was behind them. Only the game lay ahead — and the team elders projected a vibe of certainty as to how that would turn out.

What was it Vince Lombardi said?

“Winning is a habit.”

Hines Ward usually sat on a stool at his locker, cutting the tape off his hands like a prize fighter. Casey Hampton moved around slowly, proudly, like he owned the place. Which he did. His belly would shake like a Sumo wrestler's. His considerable presence commanded the utmost respect. Just around the corner from his locker were those of the regal Aaron Smith and the widely acknowledged leader of the pack — James Farrior.

That was a special generation of Steelers. A unique group. Nobody should be surprised that the new generation has failed to measure up. You just don't find another Hines Ward, Aaron Smith or Casey Hampton.

Still, the new generation has been profoundly disappointing. Legends aside, where are The Next Great Steelers? It's as if the older players have forgotten how to win and the younger ones never knew. The past 15 times the Steelers have suited up to play a football game, including preseason, they are 2-13.

The second of part Lombardi's winning-is-a-habit quote seems relevant here: “Unfortunately, so is losing.”

Steelers Fridays are quieter now. Bizarrely so. That was underscored this past Friday as coach Mike Tomlin had put his players on punishment.

A few weeks earlier, the vets banned their younger teammates from participating in locker-room games during business hours, a move that reeked of exculpation (“Don't blame us; those silly kids are the problem.”). Now, Tomlin was banning everyone from such games. The ping-pong table was gone. The pool table was covered with an orange cloth. The shuffleboard table sat dormant.

It looked like a broken-down amusement park.

Tomlin's move fit the theme of an unbelievably embarrassing 10 days following the loss in London. Players once projected as major pieces — Ziggy Hood, Mike Adams — officially were benched. The Steelers made a rare in-season trade, acquiring left tackle Levi Brown — who proceeded to give a less-than-warm appraisal of his new/old coordinator, Todd Haley. An ESPN analyst named Ryan Clark criticized Ben Roethlisberger. Haley got sued. Twice.

It's difficult to find the right word to describe the vibe these days, with 0-4 about to become 0-5 if the Steelers' offensive line can't block a destructive Jets front.

Does “unreal” work?

“I mean, I wouldn't call it unreal,” said linebacker LaMarr Woodley. “This is real. We're 0-4 right now. But we have a lot of football left, a lot of time to turn this around.”

Woodley's right. This is painfully real. He's wrong, too. There is no time. The Steelers have to beat the Jets. And even then, you wonder if they'll revert to their nasty new habit.

You wonder if Fridays will ever be the same.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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