Steelers hoping that youth movement breathes life into team
Just like that — boom! — they were gone.
All those players who'd become so familiar over all those years, almost like extended members of countless Steelers fans' families — Casey and Keisel, James Harrison and Hines, LaMarr Woodley and Larry Foote, Mike Wallace and Emmanuel Sanders.
Ike Taylor was here for all of them, and now he's here for Ryan Shazier and Jarvis Jones, Stephon Tuitt and David DeCastro — all part of what might be the Steelers' most dramatic overhaul since the early days of the Chuck Noll regime.
“The last two years, regardless of how you want to look at it, this team did a facelift,” Taylor said Monday. “Quietly.”
It certainly did. When the Steelers open against the Browns on Sept. 7, they likely will have only three defensive starters remaining from their 2012 opener in Denver and only 14 of 24 starters overall, counting the punter and kicker.
“We always talk about reloading — we reloaded fast in the last two years,” Taylor said. “We went from a veteran old group to a majority young group. It happened before our eyes. I told Coach T (Mike Tomlin), man, this team is young.”
This is the team that could provide the foundation — and set the tone for either winning or losing — for the rest of the 2010s.
“Oh, yeah,” Taylor said. “It's a vibrant team. They come with new clothing, new slang, a whole new atmosphere, a different vibe. They're looking at you as a veteran guy, but at the same time, I'm looking at them like, ‘Hey, man, what you all got new for me?' It's a good feel.”
Only six starters, three on either side of the ball, remain from the 2011 opener.
During the process, they've shaved four years off the median age of the starting defense. Only four starters who are 30 or older remain: Taylor, Polamalu, Ben Roethlisberger and Heath Miller.
“The success of this team will be determined by the pace at which the young group develops, not only this year's draft class, but last year's,” general manager Kevin Colbert said.
What the Steelers are going through is not totally dissimilar to that transformation when Noll arrived in 1969; by 1972, when they went 11-3, very few starters remained.
“This wasn't a conscious (makeover),” Colbert said. “It's just how it evolves. Our team in the mid-2000s was successful. You hold out as long as you can, but at some point, you have to replenish it, especially when you haven't been successful the last two years.
“This is just the natural progression. Teams go through cycles, organizations go through cycles.”
For comparison's sake, the Steelers changed only one starter on offense and one on defense between their Super Bowl-winning season of 2008 and '09.
Colbert learned in 2004 how the injection of new players — and the right players — can make a difference. After going 6-10 in 2003, the Steelers drafted Ben Roethlisberger and went on to go 15-1 and reached the AFC title game in '04.
“It's painful to go through that losing season (like 2003) where you totally bomb,” Colbert said.
This makeover is the result of successive 8-8 records that did not please ownership.
“If we add the right people, and he (Roethlisberger) continues to do his job, I would hope we wouldn't be 8-8 again,” Colbert said.
“We expect more from Jarvis Jones, we expect more from Le'Veon Bell, we expect more from Markus Wheaton. If they progress as expected, in addition to this year's class, then we might have something.”