Over the past few years, the key words for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the offseason have been sustain, retain and growth. Keeping together the pieces of a championship-caliber roster while developing draft picks in the shadows has been the staple of the Steelers' recent success, from a personnel point of view.
General manager Kevin Colbert has had to take up a new vantage point this offseason in order to keep the Steelers in contention for both the immediate and distant future. Colbert builds championship sides, not mediocre division contenders. He sets high standards and does what he must during the offseason to keep the Steelers to those standards.
This year the key word for the offseason is transition.
Transition is generally a word associated with a team coming off a bad season or one whose championship window has just closed. While losing in the first round of the playoffs to the Denver Broncos, not to mention Tim Tebow...in overtime...on the first play...with a pass, is obviously not what you would call a successful season, neither was last year disastrous. Is this team's window closing, or even closed? Doubtful.
Therefore the Steelers are in neither of the typical rebuild situations.
What makes Kevin Colbert such a fine general manager is that he does not sacrifice the franchise's long-term success by being caught up in the pursuit of short-term goals. Colbert's ideal roster is capable of challenging for championships while keeping one eye on the future. That strategy has allowed Colbert to slowly turn over the talent on his roster in recent seasons. Never have the Steelers really had to undergo major surgery during the offseason, until now that is.
This offseason sent a lot of old faces into the sunset while highlighting previously less-recognized names.
It's not like Colbert has never lost key players during his tenure as general manager, Chris Hope, Kimo von Oelhoffen and Joey Porter come to mind. But not even the loss of Porter, who was the heart and soul of the defense before leaving as a free agent, comes close to the losses the Steelers are dealing with this season.
When the team lines up against the Denver Broncos in Week 1 this year, they will have a different offensive coordinator, starting running back, starting left tackle, starting left guard, starting right guard, starting wide receiver, starting nose tackle, starting defensive end, starting inside linebacker and starting cornerback compared to just 12 months previous.
The starting lineup has been decimated, while the depth took a significant hit also with multiple youngsters slated to see significant snaps.
Of the starters listed, two are not done justification by simply having their position listed. The starting wide receiver and starting inside linebacker mentioned have been so much more than football players to the Steelers over the past decade.
For the first time since 1998, neither Hines Ward or James Farrior will be on the Steelers roster this season.
No matter what happens this season. No matter how good their replacements are. The Steelers will not be able to completely replace Ward and Farrior. Both players were major parts of the Steelers identity. Ward is a Steelers icon who was the most respected voice on offense, while Farrior was the consensus captain and expert signal-caller for the defense.
Physically, the Steelers are replacing Ward and Farrior with better players. The Steelers receiving corps is as dynamic as any. Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Jerricho Cotchery are all better football players than Ward was at this point in their respective careers. Larry Foote is stepping into Farrior's role at inside linebacker. Farrior had lost a step or six over the past few years and was limiting what the Steelers could do in passing situations. Foote played significant time last year and not just because of the team's injury issues.
With Ward and Farrior setting the tone for the Steelers locker room, however, the Steelers have had one of the best settings to play football in over the past few seasons. Discipline has rarely been an issue, save for a few incidents off the field with Ben Roethlisberger and the departed Santonio Holmes, while younger players have been given every opportunity to develop in an environment which aided, rather than hindered, them.
That aspect of football is as important as anything you can draw on a white board.
The formation of leadership within the Steelers locker room will be fascinating entering this season. As one of the most articulate and experienced players in the NFL, the obvious successor to Farrior on defense is Ryan Clark. Farrior has been an important vocal leader for the Steelers, while Troy Polamalu has always been the heartbeat of the group, Polamalu is quiet on the field and it was Farrior who organized offseason activities and spoke to the team before games.
Whenever you bring 53 people together, no matter the circumstances, not just one person will be able to set the tone for that group. The Steelers have relied on a few faces in recent years to lead the team as starters. Farrior and Ward were the obvious players, but Clark, Ben Roethlisberger, Max Starks and Aaron Smith were all well-documented as leaders at one point or another.
Besides the starters, the Steelers have had a very strong group of veteran leaders further down the depth chart to help form their identity. Players like Charlie Batch, Byron Leftwich, Trai Essex, Jerricho Cotchery, Antwaan Randle El, Nick Eason, Chris Hoke, Deshea Townsend, Larry Foote and Bryant McFadden have all aided the Steelers as veteran backups over the past few seasons.
That depth isn't really there anymore. Batch and Leftwich are there. Essex is also, but he could struggle to win a roster spot. Cotchery will be the mentor for the very young group of wide receivers, while Randle El left before last season. Eason and Townsend are long gone, while Hoke and McFadden left the team this offseason.
That leaves Larry Foote.
Undoubtedly, the Steelers are delighted to have Larry Foote this year. During an offseason when they must deal with all of this transition with essentially unproven commodities replacing proven veterans, Foote provides new life without any risk. Because of injuries, retirements and free-agent losses, the Steelers were on the verge of letting their identity slip away this offseason.
LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and maybe even Maurkice Pouncey will still be expected to step into more prominent leadership roles, but Foote's presence significantly softens the blow of loosing Farrior and Ward. Not only is Foote completely comfortable working in the Steelers scheme, he has a long standing relationship with James Farrior and is carved in the same stone as the ex-Steelers star.
As Mike Tomlin would put it, Larry Foote is accustomed to being a leader of men.
Keenan Lewis, Steve McLendon, Cortez Allen, Cameron Heyward, Alameda Ta'amu and Curtis Brown are all fresh-faced youngsters bringing levels of unknown to the Steelers defense. Foote is a guiding light for those youngsters to ease the team's transition to dealing without key players and developing those players into new ones.
It will shock nobody if Foote assumes Farrior's old role of captain. It is very rare for a player stepping into a starting role to be given that responsibility, but Foote has done it before. During the only season he spent in the NFL outside of Pittsburgh, 2009, Foote was the defensive captain for the Detroit Lions.
After that year, the Steelers signed Foote to a three-year deal worth over $9 million (h/t rotoworld.com). Colbert received some criticism at the time for paying a backup starter's money, but having him this year, instead of adding a Stevenson Sylvester or Sean Spence to the growing pile of uncertainty on the field, more than makes up for any "wasted" money.
The Steelers knew what they were getting with Foote. Prior to signing with the Lions, he had started every single regular-season game for five years with the franchise and won two Super Bowl rings. In fact, the Steelers didn't want to let him go in the first place, but acquiesced to his request to leave when it became clear that Lawrence Timmons was to take his starting spot. Now instead of replacing Timmons, Foote is set to create a new partnership with him until Spence or Sylvester can wrestle his spot away from him.
Foote is no spring chicken, but he is only 32 years of age. He has plenty of football left in him and likely will return after his current deal with the team expires. If the Steelers can get two or three quality years from Foote, then they can afford Sylvester and Spence every opportunity to develop behind the scenes.
Re-signing Larry Foote all those years ago proves that Kevin Colbert doesn't just understand football, but he understands the true essence of team-building and how to construct a locker room. Even though Farrior and Ward's leadership has been lost, Foote's leadership should permeate through the roster if others are not yet ready to step up.
It is not always easy for players to be leaders on professional football teams. Players like Ray Lewis, Peyton Manning and Brian Dawkins are the exceptional athletes who instantly command respect and become leaders without even intentionally setting out to do so. If you don't have players like those to rely on, then you need a cluster of leaders to keep the whole group in check. Larry Foote should prove to be a very important of the new-look cluster in Pittsburgh.
Often times a locker room can be seen as the responsibility of the head coach, but realistically a coach cannot completely control the attitude/mood of his locker room. He is a big part of it, but coaches are also seen as outsiders because while they experience the pain and jubilation, they are still not in the trenches with the players. That kind of camaraderie can only be created by those players on the field.
Transition is a scary word in the NFL. It can be very exciting, but it can also be disastrous. All those bright young talents who look like stars in the making excite us, but often we overlook the importance of adaptation. If every rookie who showed flashes in a lesser role lived up to his own hype there would be an abundance of superstars in the league.
That simply is not the case.
Larry Foote may not excite you as a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, which is fine, but don't overlook his importance. Some will call him old, maybe even limited, but age isn't always a bad thing. Just look at your defensive coordinator. Does anyone want to swap him for a younger model?
Some general managers collect talent and some build football teams. Even in a season of transition, Kevin Colbert does both...expertly.
Cian Fahey writes for the Guardian, Irishcentral and FFBLife. You can find him on twitter @Cianaf.