The Steelers have started the 2013 season 0-4--their worst start since 1968--and naturally, there is great unrest and angst among fans. That's not uncommon, neither is the poor opinion many now have of seventh year head coach Mike Tomlin and the job he's doing with his now struggling roster.
Preparation has been questioned. Talent evaluation has been questioned. Conditioning has been questioned. Team discipline has been questioned.
And none of this should come as a surprise to even Tomlin's most loyal and faithful supporters. Hey, the Steelers are 2-9 in their last 11 games, dating back to Week 10 of 2012. They've been behind by two scores or more in 11 of their last 15 games. Many players brought into the organization in recent years to be difference makers--first, second and third round draft picks--either haven't developed or are simply no longer on the roster. And most importantly, Pittsburgh is more than likely going to miss the postseason for the second straight year--this kind of thing doesn't happen around here very often.
However, you don't have to look too far back in team history to find a similar period of less than stellar play and questions of the ability of the head coach to get the job done.
Last week, I was talking about the Steelers struggles with a guy I know from work, and just to let me know he wasn't a racist, he said, "Look, I don't care what color he is, Tomlin isn't the right coach for this team." I suppose he felt he had to preface his criticism of Tomlin, an African American, by first saying he wasn't a racist. But I said, "Look, Bill Cowher is white, and people were saying the same things about him in the late 90s, when the team was missing the postseason for three straight years."
And to that point, I really get a charge out of Tomlin's detractors now who say things like, "He won a Super Bowl, but he did it with Cowher's players."
Let me rattle off a list of names for you: Neil O'Donnell, Dermontti Dawson, Greg Lloyd, Carnell Lake, Rod Woodson, Merril Hoge, John Jackson, Barry Foster and Ernie Mills.
Those were players that Cowher inherited from Chuck Noll when he became head coach in 1992; that's not a bad core group of talent to have on your roster when you're a budding head coach in the NFL.
In fact, I recall Cowher saying something to the effect that "The cupboard is not bare" and how he thought he already had enough talent on the roster to build a championship-level football team. Sure enough, every single one of those players contributed in some way to Cowher's first three playoff teams, most of them stuck around through Super Bowl XXX, and half of them were there for the six year run of postseason appearances The Chin enjoyed after taking over the coaching reigns.
Long story, short, if Tomlin won a Super Bowl with Cowher's players, then Cowher enjoyed similar success with Noll's players.
But this isn't about comparing Cowher and Tomlin (not totally, anyway), it's more about remembering just how bad things were here in the late 90s and how they weren't much different than they are today.
See, that's one of the benefits of getting a little older and remembering a few eras of Steelers football. Today, post Super Bowl XL, Cowher is the legendary ex-coach of the Steelers who spit fire on the sidelines and always had his guys emotionally charged and ready to take the field of battle.
But before Super Bowl XL, Cowher spent many years known as a coach who didn't always have his teams ready to play postseason games, never made adjustments in the face of adversity, was often out-coached in the playoffs and could never, ever win the big game.
In addition to those dubious distinctions, Cowher was also known to play favorites with some veterans, was known as too much of a players coach, and oh yes, he was HORRIBLE at clock management--all three sure sound familiar, don't they?
After Cowher's initial playoff run two decades ago and before his next playoff run in the previous decade, he had to endure the blood-letting in the late 90s that was mostly the result of too many stars and key players leaving via free agency.
Cowher did a pretty decent job, early on, when the Leon Searcy's of the world were departing for other teams once their contracts were up in Pittsburgh, but by the time the Yancy Thigpen's of the world had left for greener pastures following the '97 season, that cupboard really was bare.
Much like Tomlin's 2011 playoff team that didn't seem quite right despite the 12-4 record (for example, minus-13 in giveaway/takeaway), there was just something a little off about Cowher's '97 squad-- his last playoff team of the 90s. Sure, Pittsburgh finished 11-5 that year and made it to the AFC Championship game, but the team had to struggle through many close games--often coming back from two or three scores down--and very easily could have been a 9-7 or 8-8 team.
And like the Steelers team of a year ago that was 6-3 after nine games, it looked like business as usual for the '98 squad late into November. Pittsburgh was 7-4 and a game back in the AFC Central after a 30-15 pasting of the first place Jaguars at old Three Rivers Stadium.
Unfortunately, the very next game was the infamous Jerome Bettis "heads/tails" Thanksgiving nightmare. And while it was obviously just a coincidence, that game--an overtime loss to the Lions--ushered in a period, where the team would lose 18 of its next 24 from that point through early 2000.
And during that time, things were quite chaotic around here, as fans and the media had to wade through, not only an ugly roster (I'll call your Kion Wilson and Guy Whimper with a Brenden Stai and Jeremy Stat, and I'll raise you Troy Edwards), but the ugly rumors involving Kordell Stewart's sexuality and even Cowher's infidelity.
And let's not forget the offensive coordinator carousel--Chan Gailey to Ray Sherman to Kevin Gilbride to Mike Mularkey--and the very public power struggle involving Cowher and Tom Donahoe, the director of football operations from 1991-1999, that saw Donahoe ousted after the '99 season.
People are questioning Tomlin's worthiness and job performance today, but many, including a sportswriter or two, were doing the same thing regarding Cowher, as his team was coming off a three year playoff drought.
Back then, while the Steelers were in the very pit of despair (the team probably hit rock bottom in '99 when they finished 6-10 and Stewart wasn't even allowed to attend quarterback meetings), players such as Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Alan Faneca and Aaron Smith were cutting their teeth and a few years from superstar status.
Should Tomlin and GM Kevin Colbert be questioned about player evaluation and the makeup of the roster? Yes. But that doesn't mean there aren't pieces to build around right now--back in '98, who would have thought that Ward would go on to break every significant team receiving record?
Have Tomlin's players had problems with off-the-field incidents, bad publicity and arrests in recent years? Absolutely. But I'm sure had Twitter and Deadspin existed in the late 90s, the rumors involving Stewart and Cowher would have been even uglier.
Are the coaches, players and fans in a bit of denial about the plight of the current Steelers team? Probably. But players and fans were also in denial 15 years ago.
Am I trying to say that Tomlin is a good coach and can turn things around in the next couple of seasons? Yes. Does it mean he will? Not necessarily. However, Tomlin's current struggles aren't unusual for most coaches (even the best coaches/managers will tell you that a lack of talent can turn you from a genius into an idiot really fast).
Every coach takes a turn in the barrel at some point. The good ones find a way to wade through the adversity and keep going. The not-so-great ones find themselves out of a job.
There is nothing about Tomlin's career that says he can't wade through the adversity, and if he does, he and Cowher can someday compare notes.
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- The Levi Brown trade and the power of change