View Full Version : On the Steelers: A Match-up for the ages

10-03-2010, 12:07 AM
On the Steelers: A Match-up for the ages
Ray Lewis and James Farrior never wore leather helmets or played on black-and-white TV. But that doesn't mean they started playing yesterday, either. Not even close. All of which makes their play after so many seasons that much more noteworthy.
Sunday, October 03, 2010
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Post-Gazette & Associated Press photos/Post-Gazette photo illustration

At a time when most players had already moved on to what Chuck Noll used to call their life's work, Jeff Van Note was 40 and still starting for the Atlanta Falcons, the team that drafted him 18 years earlier.

When he was 40, Bruce Matthews was a starter for the Tennessee Titans, the only franchise for whom he played for 19 years. In his career, which began when the Titans were known as the Houston Oilers, Matthews played in a record 14 consecutive Pro Bowls and never missed a game because of injury when he retired in 2001.

Playing at an age when most players have either retired or had their careers cut short by injury is nothing new in the National Football League.

George Blanda, who died last week at age 83, played until he was 48, though most of his later years with the Oakland Raiders were spent as a kicker. Five days ago, the New Orleans Saints re-signed kicker John Carney, who is 46, and could use him today against the Carolina Panthers.

But Van Note and Matthews were not exactly playing non-contact positions. Their careers were not extended beyond 30-something because they were kickers or punters, positions where age doesn't always seem to matter.


Favored: Steelers by 1 1/2.

Van Note was a center for the Falcons, a player who, in 1986, was the oldest in the NFL. Matthews was a guard/center who, at one time or another, played every position on the offensive line.

"You love competing, you love the competition with your own body to see what you can and cannot do," Van Note was saying the other day, 24 years after he retired, at age 41, in 1986. "Competing against others -- that's one of the real basics that, when people get in athletics, they learn. The competition, there's nothing like it."

And the passion.

Don't forget the passion. When it wanes, players use it as a sign that it is time to get out. It never did for Van Note.

"I enjoyed the game," said Van Note, a six-time Pro Bowler who straddled an era of centers that ranged from Jim Otto of the Raiders to Mike Webster of the Steelers. "I started when I was 10, I quit when I was 40. You spend 30 years at something, even if I was a lumberjack or a metal worker, you have a strong affinity for it. It becomes a big part of your life. You like working at it."

Just ask James Farrior.

And Ray Lewis.

'Freaks of nature'

They are not the oldest players in the league, not even in the top 30. But they are each 35 and well into double-digit tenure in their respective NFL careers.

And yet, when the Steelers (3-0) play the Baltimore Ravens (2-1) at 1 p.m. today at Heinz Field, Farrior and Lewis -- a pair of ageless linebackers -- remain the leaders of what are arguably the two finest defenses in the NFL.

"They are the big names in the defense," said linebacker Larry Foote, Farrior's friend and teammate since both joined the Steelers in 2002. "With their spirit of wanting to win and competing, they're at the top of the league. Since I've been in the league, I say those two are the best."

A Veteran's Veteran

"They are freaks of nature, not only in terms of God-given ability and talent, but endurance and longevity," coach Mike Tomlin said. "They are special people. They probably lead in different ways, but it probably fits their personalities."

The Ravens lead the NFL in total defense, allowing an average of 244.3 yards per game, despite giving up 144 rushing yards last week to Cleveland's Peyton Hillis. The Steelers rank sixth in the league overall, but lead the NFL in fewest points (33), yards per play (4.2) and takeaways (10).

Of the two touchdowns they have surrendered in three games, one occurred in the final 58 seconds in Tennessee and the other with 1:54 remaining when the score was 38-6 in Tampa.

Coaches change. Teammates come and go. But Farrior and Lewis remain the same. And so does the quality of the defense.

"You have to give credit to guys who can go that long, like James Farrior, because we play a very, very physical position," said Lewis, who, in his 15th season, is the NFL's longest tenured defensive player still playing with his original team. "They ask how you can keep coming back. I take that as a credit the way he and I take care of ourselves."

"It's definitely easier mentally because you've been there before, you know what to expect, you know what to do," said Farrior, who is in his 14th NFL season after signing with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent in 2002, probably the team's best free-agent signing in history. "But physically, just keeping up with these young guys and keeping pace with them, is getting harder and harder every year."

But Farrior keeps doing it, even though there are those who want to say he is slowing down. Those cries grew louder last season when Ravens running back Ray Rice combined for 229 yards rushing and 81 yards receiving in two games against the Steelers.

But, in three games, Farrior (18 solo tackles) and inside partner Lawrence Timmons (25 solo) have been busy shutting down some of the league's top running backs, including Atlanta's Michael Turner (42 yards), Tennessee's Chris Johnson (34) and Tampa Bay's Cadillac Williams (13). The longest run among the trio has been 11 yards.

"It's two linebackers who have probably done it longer than any two guys have, that I am aware of, at that level," Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. "Ray is a guy that we are very proud of. He is very talented and he works very hard at it in all ways, physically, intellectually. And he is very passionate about football.

"You can put James [Farrior] in the same category. Knowing the position so well, it doesn't take a lot for him to know what he is looking for, week to week, because he has been doing it for so long."
A case of durability and luck

Only one active player has more than 2,000 tackles in his career -- Lewis (2,368). Despite his age, he led the Ravens with 164 tackles in 2009 and is the team leader after three games with 22 (17 solo).

When he turned 30, Lewis missed the final 10 games of the 2005 season with a nasty injury in which his hamstring tore away from the bone, leading some to believe the career of the two-time NFL defensive player of the year was about to start declining. But, in the four years since, Lewis has missed only four games and been named to the Pro Bowl each season, bringing his total number of appearances to 11.

"When you still love the game and you take care of your body and you understand the business a certain way, I think playing for a long time starts to become, I don't want to say easy, because the game is always changing, but it becomes more defined on you understanding how to take care of yourself, how to feel good week in and week out, not wasting energy and time," Lewis said.

Longevity also requires a certain amount of luck, too.

Farrior has stayed largely injury-free with the Steelers, starting 81 consecutive games, including playoffs, since missing two games in the middle of the 2005 season. He had never had an injury that required surgery until this year when he had elbow surgery following the 2009 season. What's more, since he was the seventh overall player (first linebacker) selected in the 1997 draft, Farrior's only broken bone was a fractured thumb during the early part of his career with the New York Jets.

"You take it year by year," Farrior said. "As long as you still have it in your heart, you keep going. I've talked to older guys and retired players and they said they knew when it was their time [because] they felt like they couldn't go anymore, That's when they called it quits."

How long can it last?

Farrior signed a five-year, $18.25 million contract before the 2008 season that will keep him through 2012. Lewis is in the second year of a three-year deal (worth between $20 million and $25 million) that will expire after the 2011 season.

Neither player wants to think about when it will all end. Right now, they're too busy leading the defenses that will be on display today at Heinz Field.

"They're wonderful players," said Van Note, who does pre- and post-game radio commentary for the Falcons. "They learned their craft, they worked at their craft, and I'm sure they have great affection and affinity for the game. If you don't like the game and you're just it in for the money, it won't last. That's a very important thing."

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