Living in Youngstown, Ohio, both Heinz Field and Cleveland Browns Stadium are exactly an hour and a half away in opposite directions. The taverns in Youngstown are filled with both Hatfields and McCoys, half Steelers' fans and half Browns' fans. Recently a digruntled Browns' fan came up to me proclaiming that the Browns' problem was that they haven't hired a head coach with head coaching experience since 1971 (that being Nick Skorich). He was shocked when I responded that the Steelers haven't hired a head coach with previous head coaching experience since 1958 (that being Buddy Parker). The Rooneys aren't interested in hiring Norv Turner re-treads. They want up-and-coming, sharp as a whip, no-nonsense leaders who know the game, and just as importantly, know the people who play it.
Enter Mike Tomlin. Hired in January, 2007, he began his tenure with the Steelers behind the eight ball. After Bill Cowher announced his resignation, Steeler Nation was divided between current assistants Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm as to their next leader. Both coaches were nationally considered head coaching material. Surely one of them would get the job. Whisenhunt scurried off to Arizona, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall. In any case, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II proudly announced Mike Tomlin as the new Steelers' coach. Tomlin had been defensive coordinator for the Minnesota Vikings.
Tomlin's first act was to meet a fan-base who considered him a complete unknown and was generally disappointed that one of the two inside guys weren't at the podium. Tomlin's handling of this was flawless. He didn't apologize for getting the job. He was delicate and yet firm, respectful of the past and yet excited about the future.
His second hurdle also came before the season, during training camp. All Pro guard and possible future Hall of Famer Alan Faneca was out of sorts for two reasons. One, his position coach was Russ Grimm and Faneca really wanted Grimm to get the job. Secondly, Faneca wanted a long-term contract extension and the Steelers decided his age did not warrant such. Tomlin was caught in the middle. He needed to be respectful to Faneca. He needed him badly for the 2007 season. He also needed to make sure Faneca's pouting did not bring the team down. Again a fine line and again, he handled the situation perfectly.
Tomlin obviously had his team ready for the season. The Steelers crushed the Browns, in Cleveland, to win the 2007 season opener. The Steelers also won the next two games over Buffalo and San Francisco rather handily. Pittsburgh made the playoffs in Tomlin's inaugural season. The Steelers lost their first playoff game at home, however, never a good thing, to Jacksonville. Prior to the playoff game, the Steelers lost the NFL's leading rusher in Willie Parker and their most underrated defensive lineman in Aaron Smith, both to injuries.
Still, Tomlin would not allow injuries to be an excuse. Any reasonable mind would tell you that the league's leading running back (not to mention Aaron Smith), would surely be the difference in a 31-29 thriller. Tomlin would have none of that. Most coaches will give obligatory lip service in saying that injuries are no excuse. When Mike Tomlin said those words, you could feel his genuine conviction. As a fan you love a coach like that.
So Tomlin's first season ended at 10-6 plus a home playoff loss. He showed during his first offseason that we wasn't going to be stubborn. Desperately needing a center to replace Jeff Hartings after 2006, the Steelers signed free agent Sean Mahan, who got manhandled by defensive tackles in 2007. So the Steelers signed another free agent center the very next year, Justin Hartwig. Tomlin and the team were willing to cut their losses and correct their mistake rather than stubbornly stick with Mahan.
Tomlin's next lesson in human relations took place on the first day of training camp when All Pro nose tackle Casey Hamptom came into camp badly out of shape. Tomlin made it very clear that this was unacceptable, even for a standout veteran. Hamptom was placed on the Physically Unable to Play List. More importantly, notice was served. It is unlikely the same problem will present itself next summer, by Hampton or anyone.
With last season's fizzle clear in his mind, Tomlin has fine-tuned his regimen, another example of his willingness to look in the mirror and adapt. Veterans like Hines Ward and Deshea Townsend, among others, often do not practice on Wednesdays to preserve their aging football bodies. They are not listed with an ankle or knee, they are honestly depicted as "Hines missed practice because he's Hines." The Steelers are playing fresher this year in December. They are playing a full 60 minutes, unlike some of their opponents. Their current five-game winning streak has a completely different look than last year's December.
The Steelers are certainly not without their struggles. The offense, the line and the running game are still a great work in progress, to use Tomlin's words. Last week star running back Wille Parker complained to the media about that running game. Coach Tomlin would have none of that. With a knack for classic soundbites, he reminded everyone that Pittsburgh is the proud owner of "five Lombardis, not five rushing titles." His words that "Willie's comments can be construed as selfish, which he is not," were perfect. Moreover, Tomlin named Parker an honorary co-captain before the Ravens game in a public display of forgiving and forgetting. His human relations instincts are exemplary.
There were several monkeys on Tomlin's back from a season ago. Getting smashed by the Belichick Patriots, continuing the road losing streak in Baltimore and then losing to Jacksonville twice are three such monkeys, not to mention the abysmal coverage on kickoffs and punts. What a difference year-two makes. He returned to Foxboro and returned the smashing, broke the Jaguars' hearts in front of their fans and the jinx against the Ravens? Nevermore. In addition, the coverage units thus far have been a strength of the team instead of a major weakness. That is massive reversal from a year ago.
This season is far from over. We all know the achilles heel that could ruin a great season. We know we have work to do in the offseason and more changes are in store. But for a young second-year coach to have 21 wins under his belt with more opportunities available, raise your hand if you like Mike Tomlin. Being a great wordsmith is one thing. Meaning those words and then putting them to action is yet another. Mike Tomlin has a great future in front of him. Hopefully, some of that greatness will be witnessed in the next six weeks.