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The case for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014: Part One

An annual exercise in framing the issues that could lead to that seventh Lombardi

Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports


Let's begin by establishing what my guidelines are for this series.

It's not about predictions. Over the course of the next several days, you can find any number of places who want to play the parlor game of how the 2014 season will turn out in bottom-line results; who wins. I understand the attraction in both entertainment and business terms. It gets people excited, stimulates discussions (and hits), and at this time of the year nobody can be wrong. By the time events prove that the predictor had no idea what they were talking about, all of this will have been forgotten, so there's little risk to one's credibility.

What I'm attempting to do is less challenging (or more so, depending upon your point of view). I'm advancing an argument in favor of a particular outcome; what will it take for the Pittsburgh Steelers to have a successful season. And if you're in any way associated with Steelers Nation, then you understand that "successful season" can only mean one thing.

The perspective is optimistic. This is obvious as cited in the headline. It's not an 'even handed' assessment of the Steelers chances and it certainly isn't an exercise in articulating how and why the team will fail. But let's linger on this aspect for a moment because, for many people, this is a greatly misunderstood concept.

Optimism isn't just a point of view. Properly understood, it's a strategic and often essential element in achieving success. One of the great lessons I learned about leadership is that people don't need any help to fail, but they could use some assistance to succeed. This is what striving, leadership and coaching is about. Another lesson: it's dangerous and ultimately unethical to define another person's (or group's) limits. They will define it themselves in response to life's challenges. They don't need any help in doing so. Great leadership sets the conditions and challenges for those under its charge to rise, transcend if you will, their limitations and meet those conditions.

This is where so many are mistaken in their take on the Standard is the Standard. This is not a statement guaranteeing or entitling success. It's a challenge, a setting of conditions, a statement of optimism that something that many find impossible to master can be achieved, and done so consistently.

Winning NFL championships in the Super Bowl era is hard. In nearly 50 years, a full 40 percent of teams have yet to do so even once. An additional group of about 20 percent have won...once. Of the remaining 40 percent that has won multiple titles, Pittsburgh leads the pack with six, or put another way, they've succeeded at an average rate of a little less than one championship per decade. This is H-A-R-D.

So, if you're thinking, as some are, that the organization is failing because they've 'only' made it to the Super Bowl three times in the last decade (and had the nerve to lose once). . . . Wow. Where to begin? How about the fact that fourteen teams have made it to the Super Bowl as many as three times in their history? Amazingly and sadly, two of those teams (Buffalo and Minnesota) are still looking for their first Lombardi. Let's just put aside, for the sake of argument, everything this franchise has achieved before 2004; tying one hand behind our backs so to speak. Pittsburgh in this decade outperforms in appearances, victories, or both, the following organizations in their entire histories (Super Bowl era): Buffalo, New York (Jets), Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Houston, Tennessee, Jacksonville, Kansas City, San Diego, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Carolina, Atlanta, New Orleans, Tampa Bay, Arizona, St Louis and Seattle.

Negativity and pessimism gain their legitimacy by intermingling and attempting to be viewed as indistinguishable from concepts such as pragmatism or realism. To the conscious optimist, expectation is a tool that can have a legitimate impact on outcomes, but is no guarantee because of the realization that all the variables factoring into success are not controllable or even knowable. If you actually believe that it's realistic to win championships every year (or at a greater rate than is currently being achieved), to the point of declaring players and managers incompetent for not having done so, then who is being the pollyanna now?

Knowing what you don't know.

One of the great skills that one can cultivate is the discernment of what one does not know. I'll mention just three aspects of how that will affect this exercise.

One is injuries. If I were a member of the Steelers organization, or any organization in the NFL, I would be obliged to recite the mantra that injuries are just a part of the game and shouldn't be considered an excuse for failure. You have to say that and behave as if it were true. It's one of those uncontrollable and unknowable variables that one must soldier through. But neither I nor any other fans are bound by that covenant. The fact is that in the first half of the first game of the 2013 season the Steelers suffered a series of catastrophic injuries targeting a young team in a manner that had the most crippling effect imaginable. They lost the leader and best player on a young, inexperienced offensive line, plus their most experienced linebacker and most experienced running back. This year's team could be at least as vulnerable, maybe even more so, to an occurrence of that nature. If it should come to pass, especially early in the season, all bets are off.

We don't know what the young players will do. We may have a feel about what they might be capable of, but as Mike Tomlin is found of saying, it's not about capacity but rather what one is willing to do for the team. Consider his recent comment:

"Sometimes you think as you push forward toward opening day that you can take a snapshot of the individual and the group and that’s the finished product, and really that’s far from the case.

"I expect (Jones), and I expect us, to continually get better even as we push through opening day and into this season. Because the reality is ultimately, if we’re going to be the type of team that we need to be and want to be and the type of individual players that we need to be and want to be, we’re going to be continually in growth and development, particularly from a young guys’ standpoint."

Jarvis Jones, the object of Tomlin's remarks added this, which I believe references the previous comments about the standard.

"The biggest part of this game is challenging yourself mentally," he said. "I feel like if you’re here you have the physical side of it or the coaches wouldn’t have brought you in. My whole thing is learning the game and preparing myself mentally week in and week out, and really every day."


There will be a minority of the young players whose talents are such that they may be able to contribute at a fairly high level without taking on the mental challenge of transcending their limits. This will not be the case for most. How quickly that occurs, if it happens at all, will be a determining factor in how far this team goes this season.

We don't know what Tomlin and his brain trust are actually planning to unveil this season. Consider this statement from last year's piece:

As Peyton Manning said this week, one of the biggest concerns of an opening week game is teams don't know what their opponents are going to unleash, because the smart ones don't show much of anything in the preseason. Only a bunch of idiots would show their hand in order to reassure their fan base that they're competent.


You may fret about the rush defense or whatever you like from the preseason but, if you pay attention, there have been very clear signals that, despite the obligatory statements about the importance of winning in all circumstances, I don't believe providing high-level entertainment and reassurance for the fan base was the main focus of the coaching staff in preseason 2014. This is why many Steelers fans were praying that Manziel would be the Cleveland starter, because the defense that will be unleashed on the 7th has, in all likelihood, never been seen before. And it certainly wasn't on display in Philadelphia recently. (I was at the last preseason game played in Philadelphia two years ago. The Steelers lost that one too. Upon leaving, I encountered an Eagles fan who expressed encouragement over his team's performance. I smiled at him and stated calmly, "You know we play you guys again this year in October. And that game will count." The look of absolute horror on his face was priceless. Pittsburgh won the regular-season matchup).

A long setup to be sure, but necessary to set the proper context for what follows.

The case for Mike Tomlin and Steelers management

It's hard to fully appreciate what this group brings to the table precisely because there's so much that we don't know about how they go about doing their business. In a piece I wrote in January evaluating the 2013 season and looking ahead for 2014, I addressed the question of whether, as many predicted or feared, the Steelers were headed to salary-cap hell.

Every year over the last several has been the year that the bill will finally come due and the Steelers will go into the salary cap apocalypse. Maybe this year those fears will be well founded. But its worth noting that in a surprising number of instances the Steelers end up doing what a lot of folk say they couldn't possibly achieve. Why the disconnect?

It has already been discussed how we take unknowns about the Steelers operations and then project our fantasies, fears and misconceptions upon them. We seen how that has enabled some to misjudge, for example, Mike Tomlin. Well, Tomlin would be the equivalent of an open book test when compared to Omar Khan and the Rooneys. Underlying some of the thinking in this regard are assumptions that could be interpreted as pretty insulting when you think of it, though maybe true of other organizations. That deals are addressed in isolation with no regard to the big picture or long term consequences. That these people don't know months and perhaps in some cases years ahead which way the wind is blowing with the league financial parameters. That they are in essence being caught with their pants down, anticipating outcomes that (surprisingly) didn't come to pass, making business decisions based upon sentimentality or even revenge. Essentially being a bit stupid.


What we got this off-season was as good a set up from the front office as could be hoped for. Some would complain that the team could have done a better job at stocking up cornerbacks and getting a better third-string quarterback. That's pretty much it. Otherwise, its younger, faster and deeper all the way around.

I'm going to skip any detailed comments on Kevin Colbert, Omar Khan and the remainder of the front office, including scouting. The work is largely done and speaks for itself. Their focus has already moved ahead to 2015.

Art Rooney II

Last year, I placed a great deal of emphasis on the return of Dan Rooney to the day-to-day business of the team. And I believe that, as long as he's able, he'll be the face and conscience of this franchise and, to an only slightly lesser extent, of the league itself. But what's being repeated is the transition from one generation of Rooney leadership to another. How Dan was different but complementary to his father Art Sr. is known to everyone in Steelers Nation with anything beyond mere superficial curiosity about the history and operation of the franchise. How Art II compares to Dan is less known at this point. But it should be clear that the next Steelers dynasty, if there is to be one, will be largely due to the leadership of Art II in combination with Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert.

What we've seen, if this off-season is any indication, is aggression in seeking improvement on all fronts and doing so relentlessly. You're left with the feeling that they're not standing pat on anything. While they may not have the depth of resources that other organizations have, they're using all that they've got and doing so both effectively and efficiently. One thing I intuit from the behavior I can see: they mean it when they say they're going for a championship this year (and every year). They're not doing this in reaction to fan or media pressure (let's not flatter ourselves here), though they are more than happy to be responsive to those desires to the extent that it doesn't compromise proper process. I believe the Rooneys have helped (along with Tomlin) set the tone and have provided the best set of tools that they're capable of providing in order to be competitive. But ultimately it's up to the assembled talent to execute.

Mike Tomlin

A couple of weeks ago I was in conversation with Homer J. about the upcoming season. One thing he mentioned, and I'm in agreement with, is that we're moving into a period where Tomlin will really have an opportunity to shine. It is based on a reversal of sorts on what I've considered to be an illegitimate knock on his leadership. This season, and moving forward more so than at any other time in his tenure, he will have his people, players and staff in place to execute his vision. There's not enough space in this format to make a comprehensive argument for Tomlin, so let me make a limited case for his contribution to the seventh Lombardi.

The record. Entering his eighth season, Tomlin is now tied with Buddy Parker for having the third longest continuous tenure as head man in the history of the franchise (Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher are ahead of him at 23 and 14 years respectively). Tomlin, along with Noll and Cowher, is part of a very exclusive club, the conditions of membership being that you have to have led a team to the Super Bowl at least twice and have won at least once. Tomlin achieved this feat in less time than the others. And then there's the one thing that he has accomplished that no other Steelers coach has ever achieved, he has never had a losing record. And no, as odious as it is to the sensibilities of some, 8-8 is not a losing record. The very definition of mediocrity, yes, losing, no. There's so much more to this that gets to the essence of what good coaching actually is as opposed to what some think it is, so let's go deeper.

8-8. I said this wouldn't be about predictions, but here's one I'm pretty sure of that will, hopefully, help to make a larger point.

On September 14th, at least 14 teams will have 0-1 records (we'll exclude Pittsburgh and Baltimore, both of whom could be either 1-1 at this point, or possibly one at 0-2). I predict that, on one or more of the pregame shows that day, the scare tactic will be used that falling to 0-2 means, statistically speaking, that the chances of making the playoffs decrease dramatically. No special skills are involved other than a decent memory. They do this every year. Its great for generating drama in September.

So it doesn't take much imagination to figure out what was being said when the Steelers hit 0-4 last year. The vultures were circling. The team was in free fall with the worst record in football, and the only relevant question in the minds of many would be how many pieces it would break into when it hit the pavement. So what happened? They come within one play, literally the last play of the regular season of making the playoffs. And who knows what happens with a hot team then?

(Okay, now wait for it)

'But', many will say to this very day, 'they went 8-8 and didn't make the playoffs. The standard is the standard'. Congratulations! You looked for and found the most negative takeaway you could find for the situation and then ran (are still running) with it. Art Rooney's response to Chuck Noll's 1-13 rookie season as a head coach was that Noll never lost the team. That was, as it turned out, the proper focus.

Tomlin didn't lose his team and, if they should win the division and/or go deep into the playoffs this year or next, it will be as much because of what happened at the end of 2013 as anything that transpires from this point forward. It is arguably his greatest coaching job so far.

What often obscures good coaching is an indiscriminate focus upon winning. Don't get me wrong, I understand the bottom-line nature of winning, particularly at the professional level. But there is also what I might call the AAU trap. Let's say, for example, we're trying to determine who is the best street fighter. You're very good with your hands, you might even be handy with a knife. I have a gun. Who wins? My effective fighting skills begin and end with my ability and willingness to pull a trigger. This leads us to what I consider the biggest slander leveled at Tomlin, that he was just the fortunate beneficiary of inheriting Bill Cowher's work (team). I think the very concept behind such a sentiment is bogus. Only Barry Switzer in the last twenty years might stand as a credible case. But I also believe the best way to put this to rest once and for all is to attack it based on its own logic.

So if you want to make the argument that someone was put into position to manage a team whose success was inevitable, there should be some evidence for that, correct? Tomlin inherited a team that was coached by Cowher that was, hmmm....8-8. Difference being of course that Cowher was saddled with the likes of Alan Faneca, Joey Porter, Hines Ward, Jeff Hartings, Aaron Smith, etc. So it's a good thing that Cowher quit, because the standard being the standard, he should have, according to many of you, been fired. And how about the Super Bowl teams? None of the three Steelers Super Bowl teams, including Cowher's 2005 squad were favored to reach the big game. To put an even finer point onto it, not only did Tomlin have to contend with the most difficult schedule anyone had to deal with in more than thirty years, his best offensive lineman in '08 (Max Starks) may have been the worst of Cowher's group in '05. Cowher's running backs included Jerome Bettis, Willie Parker and Duce Staley. Tomlin's feature back at one point was Mewelde Moore. And then there was 2010 when Steelers Nation wrote the team off in March with Roethlisberger's suspension and the trade of Santonio Holmes. They then proceeded to open the season at 3-1 largely on the efforts of a fourth-string quarterback and then managed to return to the Super Bowl.

How this was accomplished without quality coaching hasn't been adequately explained to my satisfaction.

Leadership. It's considered an axiom of leadership that weak leaders surround themselves with weaker people while strong leaders endeavor to surround themselves with stronger people. What would this say about a leader who's one the least experienced members of his own staff and has three former head coaches and two Hall of Famers as part of his staff?  Has any player or staff member current or past openly or anonymously had a disparaging thing to say about this coach? By all accounts, players want to play for him (a definitive advantage in today's NFL) and assistants that could work anywhere seem to be content under his leadership. There might be more under the surface, but until it reaches the light of day...

Upside. Two coaches that Tomlin is most often compared to are Bill Belichick and Tom Coughlin; presumably since they share the fact that they're the only active coaches with multiple Super Bowl appearances. The principal difference being that Belichick is in his 60s while Coughlin is nearly 70 years old. Tomlin just turned 41.

Interestingly, his rising as something of a coaching prodigy may both confirm and explain one of the common criticisms leveled at Tomlin; namely his game-management skills. I'm not sure I completely buy into this criticism for reasons I'll explain below, but the tactical decisions made in the heat of battle in game situations would be more of a problem precisely for someone with limited experience (repetitions) leading in game situations. At best, it's only partially a planning issue because tactical decisions must take into account the actual conditions on the ground at the moment, not merely the percentages. An example.

Late in Super Bowl X, Chuck Noll's Steelers are holding a narrow lead over the Dallas Cowboys. Confronted with a fourth down at mid-field near the end of the game, logic and the percentages would have dictated punting the ball to pin the Cowboys as deep in their own territory as possible and forcing them to march almost the length of the field against one of the best defenses ever. But special teams had struggled all day and Noll didn't trust them at that point. So he ran a safe running play on fourth down and then tasked his defense with defending half the field, which they successfully managed to do. There's no advance planning for that situation.

The reason that I'm a bit skeptical of this being a legitimate criticism is because I've seen too many people get misled by the theatrics of coaching. If asked, many people would comment that, of the three most recent Steelers head coaches, Bill Cowher would get the nod as the being the disciplinarian. He rants, raves (spits) so he must be a very hard man. By contrast, Tomlin and Noll were relatively placid on the sidelines. They look so laid back. Well, as someone who had a newspaper route for several years, I can tell you that the barking dogs were not necessarily the ones you had to worry about. Jerome Bettis described Cowher in terms that no one has ever used to describe either Noll or Tomlin. They simply didn't discipline in public.

The summary here is that Tomlin's maturation as a coach may be one important factor in the case for the Steelers in 2014. Just be careful about trying to judge that by what you see on the sidelines or by his public statements.

Part two covers team leadership and the offense