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Antonio Brown, Baron Batch, Curtis Brown, et al: The Emergence of the New "Tomlin Steelers?"

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Ivan Cole’s Weekend Checkdown last Saturday obviously gave me a lot to chew on, because here’s the next installment of commentary upon it. Here's what he said after he reported Baron Batch was healed and ready for workouts, and stated the excitement about Batch was as much about his story and his character as what he has shown on the football field:

[T]he true significance here is that Batch may not be unique in character to others of the new or Tomlin Steelers. [Antonio] Brown and Batch are 6th and 7th round draft picks that have created an air of excitement that goes far beyond their relative modest credentials coming into the league. Add to that another player I am rooting very hard for because of character issues; safety Myron Rolle. Up to this point it would be hard to distinguish those players specifically selected during Mike Tomlin's tenure and those who came before. In the majority of cases they are just coming into their own as players and as such are hard to gauge as to how they might impact the team as leaders...

Let's assume just for argument's sake that Batch makes it and becomes a big contributor to the team. Would he, along with Brown, be considered as part of the future leadership of this team? Could some common characteristics be identified that might be given the label Tomlin Steelers?

Ivan also wrote in a later comment:

I am excited about some of the commonalities that appear to be manifesting among this young group of players; the work ethic, the intelligence, the lack of serious vices (when was the last time anyone has been ‘in the news’, as Tomlin used to say?) When Maurkice, Antonio and, perhaps, Baron get some more mileage under their belts what kind of leaders might they be?

There are other players Ivan didn't mention but seem to me to fall into this category. Emmanuel Sanders is a smart, quiet, hard-working, high-character guy who has produced well when healthy. The two cornerbacks the Steelers drafted last season appear to be cut from the same sort of cloth. Curtis Brown has a similar story to Antonio Brown and Baron Batch—grew up very poor, with minimal adult supervision and plenty of rejection. Any of them could easily have been another statistic, but they were, as Batch says, overcomers.

Curtis Brown also demonstrated his determination and character when, as Neal Coolong reported on February 3rd, Brown tweeted "Never start something and not finish. I really didn’t want to come back to school but I’m here." It shows commendable strength of character for Brown to return to school. Cortez Allen chose to attend The Citadel, which shows a willingness to live a disciplined life and an interest in achieving in other areas besides football. I'm sure there are others drafted in the past few years I'm not remembering or whose stories I don't know.

Leadership has been a popular topic of late, since so many of the acknowledged leaders of the team were released in this offseason. The Steelers lost the offensive co-captain, Hines Ward. On defense they lost both the defensive captain and the caller of the defense in the same person, mack linebacker James Farrior. They also lost a quiet man who the other players acknowledge as a mentor and leader in the locker room, Aaron Smith. On Special Teams they lost the captain, Arnaz Battle. All of these men were victims of the joint effects of Father Time and the NFL salary cap, although at age 32 Battle probably has a few more years of football in him.

Though these releases were perhaps inevitable and necessary, I cannot imagine the Steeler ownership, front office, and coaching staff underrated the leadership these men brought to the team when considering the cuts. Leadership is not a luxury. Anyone who believes it is needs merely to look at the 2010 Bengals or the 2011 Jets for recent cautionary tales. One can only assume the ownership, front office, et al, saw a group of leaders-in-waiting, to borrow a Tomlinism. And what better way for Mike Tomlin to finally silence the last doubters than by stamping his image on this team with a group of exciting players who evidence the leadership and character so necessary to any locker room?

Mike Tomlin walked into a team with established leadership, both on the coaching staff and among the players. This was undoubtedly a good thing, as Tomlin was very young and very inexperienced to be taking on a head coaching position. Since 2007 Tomlin has, in my opinion, visibly grown as a coach and leader. From his initial sometimes uneasy forays into commanding a group of men many of whom were close to his own age he has gradually assumed an easy relationship with his players which still leaves no one in doubt who is in charge. The last step in this process is for the leaders of the team to be Tomlin's men: chosen and drafted by him, developed by him, mentored by him.

This process takes time, especially given Tomlin's style. Tomlin identifies himself as a "servant leader" in the manner of his mentor, Tony Dungy. The essence of this style of leadership is to encourage and support the development of each person under one's authority. To do so you have to know the people who work for you well enough to know what they need in terms of guidance and direction, and how they can best receive it. (If you're interested to know more about "Servant Leadership" you can find a good overview here and information about the "founder," Robert K. Greenleaf, here.)

I think it is possible Mike Tomlin was jolted into a more careful adherence to the tenets of servant leadership by his failure with Limas Sweed. Tomlin benched Rashard Mendenhall, with great success, early in 2009, and perhaps unthinkingly used similar tactics on Sweed without considering the very different needs and personalities of the two players. I suspect Tomlin carries some of the burden of that organizational failure. Whether he should or not is a question for another discussion. But I believe he has as a result sought to consider even more carefully both who the team drafts/signs and how he deals with them.

Furthermore, the unhappy events of spring 2010 would very likely lead Tomlin to ponder the importance of understanding the character of each player on his roster. Only then can you know how to best help them. The great difficulty of this for any leader is in how difficult it is to actually like everyone you are obliged to deal with. But nonetheless I believe as Tomlin continues to mature as a coach and leader he will get even better at looking beneath the surface of his players and learning what they need.

Curtis Brown is an example. This article on details his struggles at training camp last year:

"The walls were closing in on me," said Brown. "Since I didn’t know anybody, didn’t really know the players and coaches yet … who do you have? It takes me a while to get used to anyone. I don’t just open up to people like that. I have always been a sheltered type dude."

From somewhere inside himself, Brown knew he would have to open up and trust others, but it wasn’t easy. He turned to Coach Mike Tomlin and Ray Jackson, who works in the area of player development.

"That helped me a lot," said Brown. "I found out everybody here wants to help you. They don’t want to harm you. It’s a family atmosphere. It’s good people here."

Brown not only made it through camp but went on to lead special teams in tackles before his December injury.

Perhaps Tomlin also feels one shouldn't make one's task unduly difficult. I think we are seeing the some of results of this in Tomlin’s later drafts. Note, for one thing, none of the respectable draft pundits have, to my knowledge, bothered to mock Vontaze Burfict to the Steelers, at least since the combine. Some teams will take a chance on a gifted troublemaker, although Burfict didn’t make that much of a case for himself as ‘gifted’ at the combine either. The Tomlin-led Steelers are almost certainly not going to take a chance on a player like Burfict, unless they sense in a personal interview with the player there is a substantial desire to radically change. A servant-leader doesn’t presume people can’t change—quite the contrary. It is the servant-leader’s job to help them do so, to their own and the organization’s benefit. But there is no point in bringing in someone who is not ready and even eager to change, and has demonstrated at least some ability to do so.

What is Tomlin, and consequently the Steelers, looking for? I believe it is heart, character, and the desire to excel. These characteristics are evident in this week's two free-agent signings, TE Leonard Pope and WR Jerricho Cotchery. They are both fine players who have demonstrated they undoubtedly belong in the league, but neither has set the world on fire with their enormous talent. Pope was a third-round pick, Cotchery fourth-round. However, they have both worked very hard to develop their gifts, and have had a good deal of success.

One of my favorite drills to watch at training camp is the TE sled shoving drill. (No one seems to be able to tell me a specific name for this drill, so ‘sled shoving’ it is.) It is held at the fence right in front of the bleachers, and Tomlin always comes to watch it, or at least always has when I’ve been there. (I attended several days of both the 2010 and 2011 training camps.) It’s close enough so you can hear Tomlin’s comments and see the expression on his face as each man takes his turn to run at the sled. Tomlin has a comment for each attempt. He may be exhorting, or complimenting, or even just grunting, but each man gets something. Each one gets back in line and tries to improve on the next attempts, and Tomlin watches each one intently.

What components of the sled drill does Tomlin finds so interesting? I can't say for sure, but as I see it the sled drill is all about heart, effort and attitude. It doesn’t make a difference if you’re an ideally proportioned TE, or if you can run a 4.4 40 yard dash. It’s about how much time you’ve spent in the weight room and how much energy you’re willing to expend on an almost certainly hot and muggy August afternoon. Tomlin is looking for the guys who will go the extra mile. (Of course, maybe he's just looking for a fullback... : )

Competition for places on an NFL team is not only unavoidable but desirable. In a corporate setting one can hire the necessary number of people, help them develop, and release them only if, after considerable effort on the part of management, they cannot fulfill the needs of the position. In the NFL it is more like a winnowing process. But this doesn't mean the team culture has to be "nature red in tooth and claw." As Tomlin put it at the beginning of the 2010 season in re Antonio Brown and Emmanuel Sanders, there were two dogs and one bone. Remarkably, though, in part because of the prevailing culture of mentorship as fostered by Tomlin and practiced by some of the now-departed leaders, Brown and Sanders forged a bond of what one might call co-operative competition.

Not everyone can get a "hat," but the personal and professional development fostered by a servant-leader can help those who didn’t get one to find a spot on another team, or use what they have learned in another field in their "life after football." Servant-leadership may not seem like the quickest or most direct way to the goal, but I believe it is the one which will pay the greatest eventual dividends, both for the organization and the individuals involved.