I'm sure the sportwriters and know-it-alls will find some reason to overlook Mike Tomlin and give the Coach of the Year honors to somebody else. Tomlin will be an afterthought, and will get few - if any - votes, and fewer mentions. But that's okay. When Steeler Nation's fearless and beloved young leader walks into work, he walks past six Lombardi Trophies, not six Coach of the Year Trophies. Hopefully, seven soon. And Mike Tomlin has more job security than the guy who won the COY last year and just got fired. In fact, given the history, he has more job security than any NFL Coach and maybe more job security than anybody you know.
Tomlin and his staff kept this team rock solid together - and moving forward - in spite of injuries to nearly all of their "indispensable" players: Aaron Smith, Harrison, Woodley, Roethlisberger, Pouncey, Polamalu, Ward (and those are just the All-Pros who missed games) .....as well as just about every starting offensive lineman. The NFL season, as Coach Tomlin points out, is a war of attrition. But few teams successfully withstand so many injuries to so many key players. The Steelers did.
"Next man up," became their motto as Tomlin peddled that exquisite line of bullshit that "we don't have back-ups. We have starters and starters-in-waiting." Well, it seemed to be the kind of bullshit that all coaches try to use, except that it was actually true. And the players bought into it.
Change is hard, but it happened right before our eyes and most of us didn't see the forest for the trees. This team got younger and better as the season went on. Ziggy, Cam, and McLendon stepped up - big time - when Smitty and Hokey simply wore out after so many years of greatness. Same with the defensive secondary, where Lewis and Gay stepped up and Allen and Brown delivered when called upon and showed immense promise. Younger, faster, better.
On offense, Antonio Brown didn't start until more than halfway through the season. And Gilbert showed he's going to be a mainstay for years to come. 'Nuff said.
Compared to the team Tomlin fielded at the end of the year, the team that got blown out in the opener WAS too old, too slow, and whatever. Now, the Steelers are younger, faster, and have a brighter future than many of us might have imagined. The change happened as we watched, but it was so seamless, many of us never even noticed.
On Sunday, in other games, we saw several examples of how character and chemistry can determine a team's performance. In the closing seconds of the first half, Redskins receiver Santana Moss took off his helmet to argue a call. That's a 15 yard penalty, which took the Skins from the Eagles 4 to the 19. They didn't score. Not even a field goal. Moss, a veteran, knew better, but put his own feelings ahead of the team. And then there was former Steeler Santonio Holmes, who quit on his team. Fans everywhere saw that and understood why the Steelers ditched the guy. Cancer is cancer, and it must be removed to keep the body healthy. There is nothing to metastasize in the Steeler locker room any more, and the body is healthy as can be.
After the opening game - and after the Texans game - there were plenty of opportunities for finger-pointing. There were plenty of opportunities for the team to split apart. Instead, they bonded together. Credit for that goes three ways. First, to the players, who showed immense character and sacrifice amid injuries and other setbacks. Second, to the coaching staff, who did a world-class job in every way. And third, to the front office who hired and acquired people with a sublime mix of skill, dedication, and character.
Tomlin and Co. may have made a few mistakes on the sidelines this year. The decision to turn down the holding call in the Browns game, leading to the Cleveland field goal, is one that comes to mind. The Yinzers, the haters, and the malcontents will focus on that and a few other perceived foibles. But that is small, small beer. Every coach makes a few of those, and 95% of coaching is done during the week, during the pre-season, and during the off-season. That 95% is mostly out of our sight. And nobody, but nobody, does that 95% better than Mike Tomlin, his coaching staff, and the Steeler front office.
As this team hobbles into Denver with a secondary in tatters, an All-Pro linebacker with a gimpy hamstring, minus their featured running back, and a limping quarterback playing behind a makeshift offensive line, there is a quiet confidence among the Steelers and Steeler Nation.
This team is far, far better than the sum of its parts. They have done a magnificent job of papering over - and playing through - weaknesses caused by injury. This has been a transitional year - with stars like Smith and Ward being replaced - and yet this team was tied for the second best record in the AFC.
It is a good feeling to see that the young guys have stepped up and performed. And it is even better to see that Aaron and Hokey and the others - who have given their heart and soul to the team for so many years - are going out as winners. They deserve no less.
I am as proud of this year's team as I have been of any in the storied history of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Well done, Coach Tomlin. Great job, guys. Now, let's deck the Broncos. They're just yonkos.