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Starkey: Broncos loss still stings, motivates

Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas scores the game-winning touchdown on the first play of overtime during an AFC Wild Card Playoff game against the Steelers on Jan. 8, 2012.

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Sunday, May 27, 2012, 12:30 a.m.
 

One peek at the Steelers' practice field tells you times have changed.

The guy wearing No. 91 isn't Aaron Smith anymore. It's somebody named Corbin Bryant, a second-year defensive end out of Northwestern. That isn't James Farrior in the 51 jersey, either. It's rookie Sean Spence.

Chris Hoke's familiar No. 76 soon will be inhabited by giant rookie tackle Mike Adams — and no matter how hard you search, you cannot find a No. 86 or the perpetual smile that accompanied it for 14 years.

“I don't know if it's a new era,” says defensive end Brett Keisel. “But there are a lot of guys out here who I have no idea who they are.”

Welcome to OTAs. The Steelers are three days in, and while nothing definitive could possibly emerge from five hours of “football in shorts,” these two things I know:

• For some players, not even tomato juice, vinegar and hydrogen peroxide could erase the stink of losing to Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos.

• Leadership, despite the departure of some legendary leaders, will not be a problem.

First, the Denver game. It might not have been the most painful playoff loss in Steelers history, but it easily was one of the worst, based on the “quality” of competition and the horrific ending.

Veteran linebacker LaMarr Woodley says the loss motivated him throughout his injury rehab and will continue to do so.

“What gives you motivation is not playing in the Super Bowl, getting eliminated in the first round, losing to a team we had no business losing to,” Woodley says. “It's a team we should have easily beat. That's motivation, watching teams play the week after us.”

The Broncos, of course, went to Foxborough the following weekend and dropped a 45-10 squeaker to the Patriots.

I wonder if we will someday look back on Tebow's 316-yard explosion (on 10 completions) as the most prolific day of his career. The Steelers made it easy, especially on the slant Demaryius Thomas turned into an 80-yard touchdown on the first play of overtime.

“When you lose in that manner, the game sticks with you,” says linebacker Larry Foote. “It's going to stick with us forever.”

Forever is a long time, which brings us to the leadership question. Nobody plays forever, though the Steelers' veteran core came close. Foote rightfully marvels that his peer group was able to play the better part of a decade together. How often does that happen?

He knew the day would come when his close friend Farrior and others would have to hang 'em up.

“It's like anything,” Foote says. “You knew you had to leave college, even if you wanted to stay and be the big man on campus. When time's up, it's up.”

Farrior was regarded as the Steelers' leader of leaders, but Foote says pinning that responsibility on one player is “overblown” and that the team has plenty of in-house alpha dogs.

High-quality leadership is a franchise tradition, passed from one generation to the next. It's a big reason the Steelers own more Vince Lombardi Trophies than anyone else.

“You can tell the type of team by the types of leaders,” Woodley says. “It's weird not having some of the guys around here — the Aaron Smiths, James Farriors, Chris Hokes — but look behind them. You have Troy (Polamalu), Larry Foote, me being in my sixth year, Brett Keisel, Casey Hampton. The list goes on. As leaders leave, other guys around here become leaders.”

Perhaps sensing a new role thrust upon him, Polamalu not only showed up for organized team activities but became the official meeter and greeter. The man did everything but build a campfire and orchestrate a mass “Kumbaya” (don't rule it out for this week).

The culture is less settled on the other side of the ball. Todd Haley brings a new offense to a youthful group that features only one starter with 30 birthdays under his belt. That would be Ben Roethlisberger, who hasn't exactly embraced the change — at least not publicly — but is a natural-born leader on the field.

And if you're worried about Mike Wallace or the other young wideouts getting too big for their britches, well, listen to Jerricho Cotchery.

They should.

“I'm the veteran of the group,” Cotchery says. “And like I told them, I've experienced a lot in life in general and in my nine years of football. I've seen a lot. So I told them, ‘Anything that you have a question about, just come to me.' ”

Like every team, the Steelers have issues. Leadership isn't one of them.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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