They say the true test of a man's character is not revealed when times are easy but instead when times are tough. Most of us would agree with this. It is generally far easier to handle winning than to cope with losing. Winning bolsters confidence while losing fosters anger and self-loathing. Winning brings people together while losing divides. Winning spawns clichés like, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," and encourages people to "stay the course" and "keep doing what you're doing." Winners are easy to motivate. Winners believe.
Losing, on the other hand, is far more complicated. Losing requires patience and fortitude, two virtues humans tend to hold in insufficient supply. Losing demands self-assessment. Losing demands humility. It demands vision and integrity and above all it demands an effective action-plan from the people in charge. They must identify the sources of their failure and must have viable remedies in mind. And they must do these things quickly. Losing can become both culture and habit if allowed to linger. More importantly for the people in charge, losing can get you fired.
Enter Coach Mike Tomlin.
Few coaches in the long history of the game have experienced as much success as quickly as our own Coach T. He was an NFL coach before the age of 30, a Super Bowl winning assistant in his 2nd year in the league, a coordinator at age 34 and a head coach one year later. And not just any head coach. He was head coach of the PITTSBURGH STEELERS, one of the most storied franchises in all of American sport. In his second year he became the youngest head coach to ever win a Super Bowl and two years later he brought the Steelers back to the Big Game. In his first five seasons he made the playoffs four times and compiled a regular season record of 55-25. He was routinely mentioned as being in the upper echelon of NFL coaches. Few (if anyone) questioned his merit.
Unfortunately, the NFL is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league, and if "lately" is defined as the past two seasons, the Steelers are 13-16 and about to miss the playoffs for the second straight year. They have been at times inefficient (unable to produce turnovers or protect their quarterback), unlucky (specifically with injuries), overmatched (the New England game) and most often, maddeningly close but not close enough (6-11 in games decided by a touchdown or less). Some things, like the injuries and their subsequent effect on our (in)ability to protect the quarterback, have little to do with coaching. Other issues are more directly connected.
Take the close losses, for example. In the coaching world there's a commonly shared sentiment that says blowouts happen because of players but close games are decided by coaches. If that's true, the Steelers have been on the wrong end of too many close games over the past two years. How many could have gone the other way with better preparation, better game-planning or better day-to-day instruction? It's impossible to say. But to say it doesn't raise questions is to be ignorant to the facts.
Given these things, Mike Tomlin finds himself in unchartered waters in his NFL head coaching career. Never before has he experienced a stretch of such futility. While 13-16 might be acceptable and even represent progress in some places (Howdy, Cleveland!), in Pittsburgh it represents something far less than the cherished "standard." Therefore, I submit that the final three games of the 2013 season are far from a few meaningless football games that we fans will have to endure while debating whether we should draft a corner or an offensive tackle in the first round of the draft. Instead, they will say as much about how good a coach Mike Tomlin is as any three-game stretch of his career.
How hard will his team play for him while knowing there are no great stakes on the line? How much energy and passion will they play with? Will they execute well, providing evidence they're still working hard on fundamentals and stressing the little things? Will they be resilient if they fall behind and demonstrate a burning desire to win football games? Will they fight for the sake of fighting? Or will we see something else - something sloppy and listless, something that reminds us more of what we commonly see from Oakland or Buffalo rather than here with the Black and Gold. This will be the a huge challenge for Coach T: a three game stretch with a team heavy on both aging vets and unproven youngsters with nothing beyond pride to play for.
As a barometer of how Coach T handles it, I suggest we don't judge him on whether the Steelers win or lose but instead on the following factors:
1. Will the young players continue to improve?
Guys like Le'Veon Bell, Jason Worilds, David DeCastro and even Mike Adams have gotten better and better as the season has progressed. Will that progression continue over the final three games? If so it will tell us that they respect Coach T and that he in turn is still resonating with them. If not, that's a sign of serious disrespect and something that does not bode well for the Coach going forward.
2. How will Ben Roethlisberger play?
Getting a 31 year-old Pro Bowl QB with a long injury history to play enthusiastically in three cold, meaningless football games will be a big challenge. Ben is a heck of a competitor by nature but would anyone fault him if self-preservation were on his mind? If Tomlin can keep Ben playing at the Pro Bowl caliber level we've seen from him this year it will be a huge feather in his cap. Pay close attention to this. It will speak volumes to Coach T's ability to motivate.
3. How much enthusiasm will we see from the team in general?
In my opinion, this is the most important thing to watch. Regardless of the outcome of the final three games, a Steelers team that is playing with passion and enthusiasm and is really running to the ball on defense and playing physically and aggressively on offense is a team that loves its coach. Players lay it down for coaches they respect regardless of the circumstances. On the other hand, three listless efforts from a Steelers team playing out the string will likely tell us Coach T isn't getting through to them anymore. This has nothing to do with X and O's but will say a ton about how the Steelers feel about their head man.
Finally, none of this is to remotely suggest that if the final three games don't go well the Steelers should fire Mike Tomlin. I am nowhere near to making that sort of judgment. However, these games will provide us a barometer of how Coach T handles adversity and of how passionate he is to stem the tide of losing that has crept in these past 29 games. I am fascinated to see how he handles it.