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The Tomlinator

This is a follow-up from the earlier article highlighting Mike Tomlin's brief career as the head coach of the Steelers.  In that piece we talked mainly about the improvements that Coach Tomlin made from his first year to his second.  In this piece we take a look inside the man to see what makes him tick.  The quotes all came from Steelers Press Conferences that were appropriate to the story.

No, Arnold Swarzenegger is not the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Mike Tomlin is.  And while Tomlin is a warm, personable family man with excellent people-skills, he does have something in common with Swarzenegger's character in the 1984 blockbuster movie, "The Terminator."  Tomlin is a man on a mission and there are no roadblocks that he will acknowledge along the way.  That mission is the Steelers' sixth Lombardi Trophy, the equivalent of The Terminator's Sara Connor.  If you recall the movie, trying to negotiate with The Terminator was a pointless exercise in futility.  Similarly, trying to discuss mitigating circumstances with Coach Tomlin is dismissed before the conversation begins.

The_terminator_medium  Mike_tomlin_2_medium


Don't talk to Tomlin about injuries.  They simply do not factor into the journey.  He re-iterates with monotonous regularity that "the standard of expectation does not change."  The Steelers were decimated with injuries in 2007, losing both safeties, the league's leading rusher, the team's best offensive tackle and the NFL's most underrated defensive end.  Any reasonable mind would agree that such avalanche of bad luck was surely the difference in the 31-29 playoff heartbreaker to a healthy Jacksonville.  To Tomlin, bad luck, any luck, is nonexistent.

Don't bring up officiating.  It is part of the game that does not merit discussion.  Don't mention weather conditions.  They simply are what they are, and for both teams.  Don't remind Tomlin that the Steelers had one of the most difficult schedules in NFL history in 2008 according to opponents' winning percentages in 2007.  "We play who we play." 

And never bring up the past.  It is irrelevant to the future.  The means do not matter, only the end.  Tomlin is genuinely puzzled at the notion that it is hard to defeat a team three times in one season.  Coming into Sunday's AFC Championship game, there was concern in Steeler Nation of having to beat the Baltimore Ravens three times.  In Tomlin's mind, he only had to beat the Ravens once.

"I don't subscribe to that hocus pocus," snapped Tomlin.  "What happens in the past has nothing to do with the future, except what you can learn from it."  Step aside Arnold, you've got some company.

Tomlin not only fears nothing, he embraces the greatest of challenges.  He thrives on the road less traveled.  "Iron makes iron sharper," another of the many Tomlinisms that he believes and preaches.  Not many could have followed two legends like Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher without reservation.  Tomlin was attracted to the pressure.

"The tradition is awesome," beams Tomlin.  "You can't put a price tag on it.  It's inspiring not only to me, but I think everyone who's a part of our football team and in this organization.  Those who have come before us set the standards for us.  We understand that when we come in the building."  Got goose bumps?

The Tomlinator entered Steeler Nation under duress, even if he was the only one who never felt it.  The fans were clamoring for one of the current assistants to get the job.  All Pro guard Alan Faneca pouted through a lame duck preseason and the ever-popular Joey Porter was released.  The man who had not yet turned 35 and had never been a head coach on any level never flinched.  He didn't apologize for getting the job.  He was delicate and yet firm, respectful of the past and yet excited about the future.

There is one major difference between Tomlin and The Terminator, and that is the former's acumen in human relations, a perfect balance of stern and tender.  When All Pro nose tackle Casey Hampton came into camp badly out of shape, Tomlin made it very clear that this was unacceptable, even for a standout veteran.  Hampton was placed on the Physically Unable to Play List.  More importantly, notice was served.  It is unlikely the same problem will present itself next summer, by Hampton or anyone.

Star running back Willie Parker complained to the media about the running game not being utilized enough.  Coach Tomlin would have none of that.  With a knack for classic soundbites, he reminded everyone that Pittsburgh is the proud owner of "five Lombardis, not five rushing titles."  His words that "Willie's comments can be construed as selfish, which he is not," were perfect.  Moreover, Tomlin named Parker an honorary co-captain before the next game in a public display of forgiving and forgetting.  His human relations instincts are exemplary.

With 2007's fizzle clear in his mind, Tomlin fine-tuned his regimen in 2008, an example of his willingness to look in the mirror and adapt.  Veterans like Hines Ward and Deshea Townsend, among others, did not practice on Wednesdays to preserve their aging football bodies.  They were not listed with an ankle or knee, they were honestly depicted as "Hines missed practice because he's Hines."  The Steelers played much fresher this past December than in Tomlin's first December. They played a full 60 minutes, unlike some of their opponents.  Their late-season energy in 2008 was a complete reversal of 2007.

The biggest improvement in 2008, however, was making a very good defense into a great one.  The Steelers finished first in the NFL in passing defense, total defense and scoring defense, and finished second in rushing defense.  Had they won that rushing title, they would have accomplished a Defensive Quadruple Crown for only the second time since the NFL merger in 1970.  (The Philadelphia Eagles did it in 1991).  In addition, the Steelers did not allow an opponent to tally 300 total yards in any of their first 14 games, accomplished only by the 1974 Los Angeles Rams since that same merger.  They finished holding opponents under that 300 mark in 15 of their 16 regular-season games. 

Of course, Steelers' defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau, who should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, deserves much of that credit.  But don't think for one moment that Mike Tomlin's imprint is not on those defensive accomplishments.  Tomlin came to the Steelers as a highly-successful defensive guru himself.  His contributions added to LeBeau's genius is what made Pittsburgh's 2008 defense one of the greatest of all time.  Moreover, Tomlin did not change the Steelers' base 3-4 defense to one that he had been successful with in the past.  He was big enough to continue working with Lebeau's scheme and add to its success rather than changing to his own.

"I came into a situation where it wasn't broken," asserted Tomlin.  "Dick LeBeau's reputation and resume speak for themselves.  It would have been foolish for me to fix something that wasn't broken.  It would have been ego-driven.  My ego doesn't drive me; seeking victory does."

The cohesion of a football team is the direct reflection of its head coach.  The 2008 Steelers are the ultimate model of individuals coming together as one.  It is said that truly great people take more than their share of the blame and less than their share of the credit.  Through Tomlin's leadership, you can hear that mantra ringing from each and every player.  Not only do Steelers' players not snipe at each other and look to blame, they genuinely love each other and defend each other.  The camaraderie on the 2008 team was as good as it gets.  Stan Savran, popular Pittsburgh media personality, has been around the team for more than 30 years.  Heading into the AFC Championship Game, Savran could feel the unity.

"There's something very special going on in that locker room," said Savran.  "You can feel it."

Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger can attest first-hand about Savran's intuition.

"We have a special group.  We call ourselves 'The Band of Brothers.'  The offense picks the defense up.  The defense picks the offense up.  Special teams picks us all up.  We say that nothing can come between us.  We're a real close group.  We really feel that way.  We want to go out and play for each other."

LaMarr Woodley, a young player in just his second year, is experiencing something that he's never experienced before.

"I never imagined feeling this way about teammates," revealed Woodley.  "We're not playing for ourselves.  We're playing for the team.  There are no individuals in that locker room.  It's really hard to explain, but it is very real and very special."

A head football coach, with one major disadvantage, is much like a master chef.  Both take numerous ingredients in varying amounts to prepare a successful recipe.  The disadvantage the coach has is that he has limited control of the ingredients.  Because of the NFL's infrastructure, the cards are dealt equally from the deck.  Thus, every team has its weaknesses and warts.  Fans clamor to get those situations corrected, but it is not that easy and not that quick.  A successful coach needs to somehow blend the weaknesses into the strengths to produce the finish product.  As a result, style points don't always look pretty in every phase.  Style points, just like the words injuries, weather, luck, officiating and scheduling, are words that simply do not exist in Mike Tomlin's vocabulary.

Tomlin, unlike his 1984 counterpart, is a man with great emotion.  He controls that emotion and knows how, when and where to channel it.  He may or may not end up with his coveted prize this year, but either way, I can just picture him on stage when the 2009 Super Bowl is in the books.

"I'll be back."