As discussed here previously, it is safe to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers currently have a dearth of leadership on offense that stems from championship success. Aside from quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, only tight ends Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth can boast a Super Bowl ring in the offensive huddle.
A champion’s leadership had seemingly been a staple of the Steelers locker room for the better part of the past decade, with younger players speaking frequently in interviews of how the older players would flash their rings in the faces, figuratively or literally, of the less experienced players to entice them on to greatness.
Linebacker LaMarr Woodley spoke of how he wanted to get a ring like the one that James Harrison had during the Steelers’ run in the 2008 season that ended with a victory in Super Bowl XLIII. Those with two rings, of course, were predominantly on the defensive side of the ball, but a large chunk of the champion’s leadership left with wide receiver Hines Ward after the 2011 season.
The Steelers now find themselves turning to a new type of leadership, a leadership that they have not had to seek for some time in such a long-tenured, veteran locker room. The new leaders stepping up in the locker room do not have the rings to flash around. No, their leadership is predicated on their own infectious, individual drive, their own quest for a ring.
One of those new leaders is center Maurkice Pouncey. Drafted with the 18th overall pick by the Steelers in the 2010 NFL Draft, Pouncey bucked the odds and became a starter for the team on day one. In three seasons, he has gone to three Pro Bowls and been named to the All-Pro team three times, once as the first team center in 2011.
Pouncey was just the beginning of a remodeling of the offensive line, with tackle Marcus Gilbert being drafted in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft and guard David DeCastro and tackle Mike Adams following suit in the first two rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft.
With the departures of Max Starks and Willie Colon, Pouncey is now the longest tenured consecutive starter along the offensive line (Ramon Foster has been with the team since 2009 but is entering only his first training camp slated as a starter).
Coupled with his own individual success, it is not surprising that head coach Mike Tomlin saw fit to jumpstart a process that was already naturally occurring this offseason by speaking to Pouncey about stepping up with more of a leadership role in 2013.
Signs of it began to appear last season, beyond the natural leadership that comes with the center position, but it is far more evident in his words and demeanor thus far this season. Despite being only the third oldest member along the offensive line (Adams and DeCastro are less than a year younger), Pouncey is viewed by his fellow linemen as the veteran, the one who’s had true success in the league, and he has embraced the role of leader.
Consider the interview that second year reserve lineman Kelvin Beachum gave with the team’s website last week, when asked about how much Pouncey has been helping him learn the center position as he strives to familiarize himself with every position on the line:
“A ton. I got some really good work in with him yesterday. He really helped out, and I made some improvement, but like I said, when the bullets start flying, that’s when all the work comes to fruition. During those team settings is when I have to be on point.”
Or go back further in May, when Teresa Varley recounted in an article the omnipresence of Pouncey’s booming voice barking words of encouragement as his fellow linemen got some work done in the weight room.
Further still, it goes back to the end of last season when Pouncey brought his fellow offensive linemen, including the then rookies Adams, DeCastro, and Beachum, along to Hawaii at his own expense to enjoy a vacation during his Pro Bowl appearance.
The experience helped to cement the relationship that this young group of linemen share, a process spearheaded by the soon-to-be-24-year old fourth year center. Adams recognized the gesture for what it was:
“We had a great time out there in Hawaii thanks to Maurkice. That was a great time to all be together. Not many guys do something like that for that many guys. I think that speaks volumes about how close we are and how much we care about each other for him to want us out there with him to enjoy it with him.”
In addition, the trip to Hawaii only made him hungrier for success, realizing that the next time he is in Hawaii, he wants to be the one playing in the exhibition game. “That is always a goal, All-Pro and Pro Bowl. That should be a goal for every player. Everybody should want to be great at what they do. We should all strive to be the best.”
Therein lies the mark of a leader. His presence rallies and unifies his own meeting room, and that spreads to the rest of the locker room. He pushes his teammates to do better, and he has the cachet to do so with his own individual success.
A ring to wave in somebody’s face is a powerful tool, but so is a plane trip to Hawaii. The future leadership of the team seems to be in good hands with Pouncey, the spiritual successor at his position to Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson. But, unlike Dawson, Pouncey still has a chance to add a ring or two to his legacy.