In one sense, it's the end of an era. Within a span of 72 hours last week, the Steelers told Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior that they would be released. Gone would be players who accumulated 42 seasons in the NFL and were good enough to get to seven Pro Bowls. They were players who were integral to the six division titles, the three AFC Championships and the two Super Bowls won during their years here.
Those honors and trophies forever will be a part of the legacy that Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior leave behind.
But in another sense, this is the end of nothing. Losing Ward, Smith and Farrior will not cripple any of the units now responsible for upholding the standard without them. Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders at wide receiver, Cameron Heyward, Steve McLendon and Ziggy Hood along the defensive line, Lawrence Timmons and Stevenson Sylvester at inside linebacker – all of those young players have been schooled in the ways of the Pittsburgh Steelers and prepared for the responsibilities awaiting them by the men whose shoes they must fill.
That also is a part of the legacy that Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior leave behind.
Great players, team leaders, solid citizens. Ward, Smith and Farrior were all of those things during their time with the Steelers, and if they met so many challenges and accomplished so much during their careers, they all ultimately were defeated by the only true irresistible force – Father Time.
"You try to remove emotion from it more than anything, but that's a difficult thing to do," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "These guys have made a lot of plays for us. They've provided great leadership. They've been significant members of teams that have been very successful. As human beings, we all feel that and acknowledge that. When it comes to making the decision, it has to be football-based, with the building of the team moving forward. So, some of the things I just mentioned that endear them to you are really irrelevant in the hard-core, nuts-and-bolts aspect of moving forward. That's what makes these decisions difficult, or testy, but it's just part of this game and it has been and always will be. The wheels will continue to turn."
The wheels continue to turn, and while Ward, Smith and Farrior were special players for the Steelers, Tomlin admits these three were especially special for him at a critical stage of his coaching career.
"Absolutely, these guys were very critical components of the transition. These guys were the leaders of this team when I got here (in 2007)," said Tomlin. "They were leaders within the locker room, and they did an awesome job of taking my charge and being great leaders in that way – supporting me in the things I wanted to do with this football team. So obviously there's a level of appreciation there that adds to the difficulty of necessary decisions."
There can be no arguing that Hines Ward was special, and the 1,000 catches and the 12,083 yards and the 85 touchdowns that made him the most productive receiver in franchise history serve as evidence while also only telling part of the story. Hines Ward was a legitimate tough guy. He was a teammate. He ached to win championships.
Hines Ward was tough enough to get a rule named after him because the league decided he was lighting up too many defensive players, and he was a player who could summon whatever extra was needed to get the yards necessary to convert the third down, or to get the ball across the goal line. He covered kicks early in his career. He blocked to the whistle, sometimes he blocked through the whistle, but it always was in an effort to set the kind of physical tone that has been a hallmark of the franchise.
Hines Ward was the kind of teammate who shed tears at the thought of Jerome Bettis ending his Steelers career without even one trip to a Super Bowl. He was the kind of teammate who would notice Ben Roethlisberger's apprehension about facing Steelers fans for the first time at training camp after the league's announcement of a six-game suspension and make the walk through the masses and down to the field side-by-side with his quarterback.
"Just an unbelievable competitor. A guy who has unique will within an industry of men who have unique will," said Tomlin about Ward. "He distinguishes himself in that way. It has been well-documented that his skill at times has not been extraordinary, and he embraces that, but he is a heckuvan athlete. A tremendous player. But I think the thing that separates him from just about every other man who has played in this league during the time he has played in this league is his unique will."
Aaron Smith came to Pittsburgh as an anonymous No. 4 pick from Northern Colorado, an undersized project from a small school, but he would develop into the player Dick LeBeau swears is the best all-around 3-4 defensive end in the history of the alignment. Smith started 160 games and contributed 44 sacks, but more reflective of his primary responsibility was the fact the Steelers finished in the top three in the NFL in run defense nine times once he became a full-time starter in 2000.
Smith was a quiet, often stoic, figure among his Steelers teammates, but he commanded a level of respect equal to any of his teammates. Midway through the 2006 season, the defending Super Bowl XL champions were 2-6 and reeling after three straight losses, including one to the woeful Raiders, when Coach Bill Cowher ended the Sunday morning meeting by asking whether anybody had anything to say.
When Aaron Smith was finished, there were tears in his teammates' eyes. The Steelers would defeat the New Orleans Saints that day, and maybe snapping the losing streak had nothing to do with anything anyone said, but the reaction showed the depth of the respect Aaron Smith's teammates had for him.
"A blue-collar, lunch pail guy from day zero to the last day. A guy who has a genuine love affair with the game of football," said Tomlin about Smith. "All these guys love football. Aaron is one of the guys who loves every aspect of the game – the drudgery, the routine, the team-building, training camp. Aaron has a genuine love affair with the game of football that is unique. He's the type of guy who is mature enough and has the type of perspective that he can appreciate it while it's going on. That's one of the things I've always respected about him. Often, guys appreciate it once it's over. Aaron is one of those guys you acknowledge appreciated it while it was going on."
For a franchise that eschews free agency as a way of roster-building, calling James Farrior the best free agent signing in Steelers history could be seen as damning him with faint praise. More significantly, James Farrior is one of the best linebackers in franchise history, and the Steelers have had enough very good ones to have sent at least one to 43 of the 62 Pro Bowls ever played.
In a Steelers uniform, Farrior had over 1,200 tackles, plus 30 sacks and eight interceptions, and for a long time he has been the defensive captain. In the 10 seasons since 2002, there have been a lot of great players in the Steelers defensive huddle, and each one of them knew to listen when James Farrior spoke.
To use a single incident as a way of describing a player, here is one that describes James Farrior:
In the 2005 AFC Divisional Playoff Game in Indianapolis, after Jerome Bettis fumbled at the goal line and Ben Roethlisberger saved a touchdown with his tackle on Nick Harper, the potential for an emotional collapse on the Steelers sideline was very real. The epitome of poise, Farrior simply strapped on his helmet, calmly walked up to coordinator Dick LeBeau and asked him what the defensive call was going to be on first down.
Farrior's calm confidence was what his teammates encountered when the defense gathered on the field, and it served to settle the unit and focus it on the task at hand. The defense then gathered itself sufficiently to allow Peyton Manning only 22 yards before Mike Vanderjagt missed a game-tying 46-yard field goal.
In the playoff victory that defined the Steelers' run to Super Bowl XL, Farrior led the team in tackles with 10 and in sacks with 2.5.
"A unique leader," said Tomlin about Farrior. "You're talking about a guy in his mid-30s who has a unique ability to build a rapport with all members of a football team. When you're talking about professional locker rooms, you're talking about a wide spectrum of guys, guys in different places in their lives. There are guys who are older and married and settled with families, and there also are young guys who are making the transition from dependence to independence, from amateur athletes to professional athletes. James is a guy who has a unique talent to bring all of those people together, guys at different points in their lives."
Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior are gone, their Steelers careers are over. They are gone, and they won't be forgotten, but the Steelers believe they have players capable of stepping in and playing to the standard.
"Thankfully for us, we feel comfortable with the guys who we have in position to play for those guys," said Tomlin, "and in most instances those (departing veterans) have missed a significant amount of time, even this past season, so we have seen those replacements play above the line football already. When you're talking about Larry Foote and Ziggy Hood and Antonio Brown, we've seen what those guys are capable of doing for us, so there's less guesswork."
Where there is less certainty, maybe more guesswork, will come in the manner in which the 2012 Steelers adapt to life without the leadership of Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior. But Tomlin is confident there are players ready and capable of stepping forward and filling this leadership void.
"I would refer to it as a leadership transition (instead of a leadership void)," explained Tomlin. "The plays are going to be made, the leadership is going to be provided, and there's a certain uncomfortable element of that because the reality is that it's going to come from someplace new. Someplace different. Maybe even exciting. It might even be surprising. I don't fear that. I embrace that. That's one of the unique things about team-building, and that's what is going to be one of the unique things about team-building for us this year. The urgency that the element of the unknown is going to create from a leadership standpoint is going to be unique. I'm totally comfortable that we have some quality candidates, some guys who have been here and provided leadership for us in the past. Maybe that was in a support fashion, and they might be pushed toward the front of the line and take a more vocal or upfront role in that regard. Guys who understand how we do business, guys who have a legitimate resume, guys who know what it's about to be a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Guys like Brett Keisel, like Ryan Clark, even guys like Maurkice Pouncey now. We have some great candidates and I'm looking forward to see how that works out."
Those would be guys who learned from Hines Ward, Aaron Smith and James Farrior.
"They have been trained, formally and informally, over a long period of time in terms of watching some unique men," said Tomlin about the Steelers future leaders, "and I think they're more than prepared."