Shortly after the new year, I had a back and forth email session with someone debating the abilities of Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin. It was a respectful debate, but the person I was talking with was certainly on the "anti-Tomlin" side of the issue.
This was right in the middle of the "should he play or shouldn't he play" Ben Roethlisberger high-ankle sprain saga: a saga that proved to be a no-win situation for Tomlin.
During the discussion, this person said that he didn't think Tomlin was a great leader, didn't think Tomlin ever had his team ready to play an entire 60-minute game, and thought Tomlin only really had success because he inherited Bill Cowher's players (in addition to disagreeing with how Tomlin handled Ben's ankle issue).
This kind of criticism is nothing new for coaches--it goes with the territory--and Tomlin certainly isn't the first coach to get criticized and have his abilities questioned. It happens to the best of them.
In fact, the legendary Bill Cowher used to hear similar criticisms all the time. His teams were never ready to play (only after a loss, of course), he was too much of a player's coach, he was way too conservative, and of course, the old stand-by--he always got out-coached in the big games (again, only following a loss).
By the late-90's, just when the Steelers six-year playoff run came to an end (conveniently enough), there was talk that maybe the Rooneys should part ways with Cowher and bring in a new guy who would take the Steelers to the next level.
The Rooneys did the opposite, however. They extended Cowher's contract, and this proved to be a sound move as The Chin was able to survive the lean years and rebuild the team back into a Super Bowl contender by 2001. In 2005, Pittsburgh finally won the "one for the thumb," and Cowher retired as coach just a year later. Today, if you ask any Steelers fan, Bill Cowher was the most perfect coach who ever lived.
I'm not trying to down-play what Bill Cowher did. He had an amazing career and helped to revitalize Steeler Nation after the lean years of the 80's. His 15-year career speaks for itself: 149 regular season victories, 10 trips to the playoffs, two Super Bowl appearances, and a Super Bowl Championship.
What I am saying is that Mike Tomlin is putting together a pretty decent career in his own right. Is he perfect? No, but he's already done so much before the age of 40.
In Tomlin's five years as Steelers head coach, he's averaged 11 wins a year, taken his team to the playoffs four times, been to two Super Bowls, and already has a Super Bowl ring.
I believe Mike Tomlin is a great leader. Is he the kind of coach who wears his emotions on his sleeve? No, but Tomlin convinced me of his extraordinary leadership skills back in 2010. With everything the team faced that year - from Big Ben's suspension to "fine-gate" - the wheels could have easily fallen off the wagon. The Steelers had just missed the playoffs the year before, and I don't think too many people would have been surprised if they struggled to finish at .500. Yet, there they were: despite so many obstacles throughout the year, they were playing in Super Bowl XLV and coming within one drive of winning their seventh title.
I'd say that's an example of a pretty good leader.
As for Tomlin having his team ready to play for 60 minutes - well, it's always easy to say that a team wasn't ready to play after a loss, but I recall Super Bowl XLIII being pulled out in the 60th and final minute. I don't think any Steelers fan will forget those 60 minutes. I'd say a record of 55-25 is a pretty good indication that Mike Tomlin knows how to get his troops ready to play some football on a consistent basis.
And finally, there is that sentiment held by a lot of Steelers fans that Tomlin has been winning with Cowher's players. This is another no-win situation for any coach who takes over a successful franchise. If he succeeds, he only did it because he inherited great talent. If he loses, however, people wonder why he couldn't win with such a loaded roster.
There is no doubt that Tomlin inherited a very talented team from Cowher, but you can say the same thing about Cowher when he took over for Chuck Noll in 1992.
Even though the Emperor didn't have a great record with first round draft choices in his final few years as coach, he still left Cowher with more than enough talent to build from. Neil O'Donnell, Greg Lloyd, Dermontti Dawson, John Jackson, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake and Ernie Mills were all players that were added to the team in Noll's last few years as head coach. And they were the core of Cowher's playoff teams from the 90's.
The 2012 season has already been a pretty bumpy ride for the Steelers, and with the salary cap issue still unresolved and free agency looming, the roads could become even harder to navigate. But in Mike Tomlin, the Steelers have a pretty good driver behind the wheel.