By Matthew Marczi
Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger recently gave an interview for 93.7 The Fan during which he alluded to a new club, a subset of players on the team: the ‘08ers. The ‘08ers are the remaining members of the Steelers’ roster who have won a Super Bowl with the team, the most recent being during the 2008-2009 season.
Roethlisberger noted that head coach Mike Tomlin gathered all the ‘08ers into his office and spoke of the importance of catering the offseason to the young players on the team, the ones who don’t yet know what it’s like to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.
It is, of course, a sound coaching policy. Tomlin effectively recruited the ‘08ers to serve as veteran mentors who can use their experience to better the young nucleus of the team. As cornerback Ike Taylor recently noted in an interview with the Steelers’ website, the success or failure of the team now very much rests in the hands of these young players:
“Just looking into the locker room—it’s a lot of new faces. But a lot of these new faces we’re going to need to get what we want to get, so just us being the veteran guys, pretty much, man, we’ve got to lead by example, and understand that there’s going to come a point in time during the season where we’re going to be relying on a lot of these young guys”.
Taylor’s words really speak to the importance of the ‘08ers, acknowledging their newfound role as leaders and mentors toward the young players. The veterans know what it is like to win a championship, and that it only drives a player to want more. “You never get used to that feeling of being a champion and winning championships”, he told Steelers.com.
But a striking fact about that ’08 group is just how diminished it becomes year by year. In 2013, just five years removed from that last championship season, only twelve members remain from that roster, and that includes long snapper Greg Warren.
Even more startling is the steep divide between offense and defense. Of the twelve members of the ’08 club, only three are on offense: Roethlisberger and tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth. Spaeth, of course, is just beginning his second stint with the team after spending the past two seasons with the Chicago Bears.
While the defense still retains such ‘08ers as Taylor, William Gay, Ryan Clark, Troy Polamalu, Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Larry Foote, and Brett Keisel, the offense has been gouged of its championship experience, particularly along the offensive line where the most tenured member is 2009 undrafted free agent Ramon Foster.
The longest tenured running back is Isaac Redman, an undrafted free agent also from the class of 2009. Among the wide receivers, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, both drafted in 2010, boast the longest non-interrupted tenure with the Steelers. Plaxico Burress, of course, spent the 2000-2004 seasons with the Steelers, just missing out on being a part of the championship team of 2005.
What does this say about the leadership nucleus on the offensive side of the ball? Miller is the type of player that leads by example. He is not a vocal presence in the locker room by all accounts, despite the fact that he may very well be the most respected man in there along with Polamalu. So the bulk of the leadership mantle falls right where it should: on the quarterback.
To be fair, Roethlisberger has done an excellent job during this offseason in his role as the leader, but he can’t be the only voice. Other leaders are emerging among the younger players. Maurkice Pouncey and Brown are key examples. But they do not have that championship experience to draw from. They can’t flash their Super Bowl ring in the faces of the younger players and tell them “this is what you’re fighting for”.
In 2013 more than any other season in recent memory, the Steelers must rely on a leadership nucleus not based on past successes, but on future ambition. Pouncey and Brown, with their recent Pro Bowl experience, are expected to represent the next generation of excellence in the annals of Steeler history. But it will not amount to much if they cannot end their careers with a ring.
As the ‘08ers continue to dwindle away, and the last championship fades further and further in the rear view mirror, it will be up to these new faces to lead the team to the championship game, so that they may hold a ring under the noses of the rookies of the 2014 class and be able to show them—not merely tell them—what it is that they’re fighting for.