Branch Rickey is rightly famous for a lot of things. First among them, bringing Jackie Robinson into Major League Baseball. Second, the establishment of baseball's first truly successful minor league farm system. But he is also found in Bartlett's and most other books and lists of famous quotes for something he said about luck. He said it more than once, but this 1952 quote, in its entirety, explains it best...
“Things worthwhile generally don’t just happen. Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Negligence or indifference are usually reviewed from an unlucky seat. The law of cause and effect and causality both work the same with inexorable exactitudes. Luck is the residue of design.”
Branch Rickey died long before Mike Tomlin was born, but the Great Mahatma could have been talking about the Steeler coach, his staff, the front office and scouting department.
When Mike Tomlin showed up for his Steeler job interview, he walked in with two loose leaf notebooks. One was an analysis of every player on the Steeler roster and practice squad. The second was a plan on how to take what they had, make necessary changes, and get that team to the Super Bowl. Tomlin wowed Dan Rooney and the rest of the Steeler front office with his analytical abilities and his total preparation. We don't know if he unleashed any Tomlinisms in his job interviews, but we can only assume that he had prepared his verbal responses as carefully as he had prepared those notebooks. His performance so impressed the Steelers ownership and front office that they entrusted the future of their franchise to a 34-year old young man who had never been a head coach anywhere.
From the day Mike Tomlin took over as Head Coach, he has demonstrated the qualities that Dan Rooney saw in him. He has a sharp analytical eye, and is not afraid to admit his team's weaknesses and address them. And he and his staff work as hard as any in professional sports.
The NFL is dedicated to parity, and that - and the salary cap - make it difficult to assemble a team without weaknesses. If you are a successful team, you draft in the bottom third, and other teams want to sign away your players for big paychecks. Every team has areas of concern.
Mike Tomlin focuses on Steeler weaknesses like a laser, and has done a remarkable job of fixing what could be fixed.
A couple of years ago, linebacker was considered a weakness. Tomlin drafted Timmons and Woodley as his first two picks, a choice that was roundly questioned and criticized. Why did he need to draft two LB's, people asked. Tomlin and Colbert were comfortable in their judgement and secure in their jobs. That second round pick of Woodley seems to have worked out. And, in one year, linebacker went from a weakness to the team's greatest strength.
Then it was the special teams coverage unit. They were the worst in the game, giving up seven returns to the house in one season, and keeping the team out of the playoffs. Tomlin cleaned house, bringing in a new coach and new players, including a couple of special teams aces from other teams. Problem solved.
Then it was the defensive backfield. A new coach was hired, and two middle round gems were drafted. Coach Lake was able "coach up" several of the guys already on the roster, and - in one year - the DB went from being a weakness to one of the team's strengths. Only when Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown were lost to injury did the defensive backfield begin to unravel.
During all this, the offensive line has been a problem, but the opportunities for a quick fix were limited. There simply weren't any blue chip left tackles available when the Steelers' first round draft pick rolled around. And they had other needs to fill and would take the best player available. Urbik didn't work out, but Pouncey and Gilbert did. They didn't reach, and refused to mortgage the future.
This off-season was surely the most difficult for the triumvirate of Rooney, Tomlin, and Colbert. Facing salary cap hell and an aging team, they released Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, and Chris Hoke. No team has ever let go so much locker room gold in such a short period of time. Tomlin - the cold analyst - knew he had no choice.
But Tomlin had also prepared for the day his beloved, but aging lions could play no more. He not only had starters in waiting for all of them, but he had young leaders, as well, ready to step up. Character has always been highly prized by the Steeler front office, and Hines' pups and Aaron's pups are ready to continue the tradition. Guys like Antonio Brown, Curtis Brown, Cortez Allen, Ziggy Hood, Cam Heyward, and veteran pickup Jerricho Cotchery will provide the strength of character and leadership that they learned from Smitty, Hines, Potsie and Hokey.
"We do things differently around here," Hines told Cotchery, when Jerricho was shopping around for a team. Well, don't expect things to change that much this year. Character still counts.
Finally, after years of waiting, the stars at last aligned in this year's draft. The Steelers were ready to trade up to get David DeCastro, but several teams made questionable picks. An attempt to trade up with the Jets fell through when the Jets backed out, and yet DeCastro was still there at 24. The Immaculate Selection seemed to be divinely inspired, but the Steelers knew all along that they would get a solid offensive lineman, so they didn't have to panic after the Jets' trade didn't work out. They just didn't know it would be DeCastro.
The choices of Adams, Beachum, and the signing of Lee make it appear that Tomlin has engineered another spectacular turnaround...this time for the offensive line. Each of those three signings has a story to it, and each story deals with study and preparation. They took a big gamble on Adams, but he humbled himself and then jumped through a lot of hoops to get back on their draft board. They took a deep look into his history, and have set up a support system for him. With a team of high character, the Steelers could take a chance on Adams. There is a design in place to help him make the right choices. Beachum and Lee - a 7th rounder and a UDFA - are solid guys who could surprise a lot of people.
The loss of so many stars from last year's team might signal rebuilding, but great teams don't rebuild. They reload.
Mike Tomlin's team was strong at the skill positions, and had plenty of leadership coming back. They were prepared to sustain the losses of their veterans. They were therefore able to address their offensive line weaknesses when the opportunity presented itself.
Other teams had to draft QB's, WR's, and glamour guys. Tomlin was able to concentrate on the trenches, and he got lucky.
Luck, you know, is the residue of design.