As the 2016 pre-season activities get under way with the start of training camps across the country, there are inevitably coaches who will find themselves on the proverbial Hot Seat.
Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin is not one of them.
It’s hard to imagine it now, but just two years ago some were saying the opposite, as Tomlin had endured two consecutive non-winning seasons. I have to phrase it that way to make it seem worse that it actually was, because they were also non-losing seasons — 8-8 records both times. While some would have us think that anything less than 10-6 is cause to fire a coach in Pittsburgh, there is one undeniable fact: in nine seasons as the team’s head coach, Tomlin has never had a record worse than 8-8. Let that sink in for a moment, if you didn’t already know: Mike Tomlin has had nine consecutive seasons of at least eight wins to start his career. And until that changes, we can safely and truthfully say that he still has a chance to improve on that impressive statistic.
His much beloved predecessor, Bill Cowher, had two losing seasons by this point in his career. Chuck Noll, the first head coach to win four Super Bowls, had already endured three, and he didn’t have to deal with restrictions like a salary cap and modern free agency. In Noll’s defense, he completely turned around the image of the team, but he still only won a combined 12 games his first three seasons. Tomlin’s squads have won 12 games in a single season three times in his nine years with the team.
Apples to oranges, I know. I mention Tomlin’s two most-recent predecessors not to re-engage a longtime debate, but simply to highlight what Tomlin has done in less than a decade. And I have’t even mentioned that 2010 AFC Championship. Or the 2008 Super Bowl win.
It’s worth examining what it is that makes Tomlin so successful. It’s not like he has much of a player pedigree to lean on — he never played in the NFL. He didn’t even have much of a history managing a large squad: he was the defensive coordinator of the Minnesota Vikings for one measly year.
Then he showed up to interview with the Steelers carrying an armload of binders, and changed his history forever.
Binders full of player profiles. Binders full of plays. Binders full of observations. He allegedly only brought five or six of them with him, leaving a closet literally full of them at home, if the stories are true. Given what we’ve witnessed the last nine years, I don’t doubt it.
If you’ve ever wondered how a guy with a relatively thin coaching resume could land a job as an NFL head coach, there’s your answer. Few people prepare as hard and thoroughly as Tomlin. It’s shown, too, leading a team from 6-10 in Cowher’s final season to a Super Bowl victory two years later. It’s shown in how he has executed a plan over the last four years to rebuild the team that none of us could have foreseen in 2012, but few of us are questioning today. If you want an analogy, imagine rebuilding an office while the staff worked, without disrupting meetings and phone calls.
He’s a "players’ coach", a phrase I don’t particularly like, but one that describes Tomlin to a T. For better or worse, he’s a coach for whom players love to play. He can read a player and see exactly what he needs to do to motivate someone who is underperforming. It’s worked, for guys from Ben Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace to Jonathan Dwyer to Martavis Bryant.
And, with that last name, we segue into what may be the most valid and accurate criticism of Tomlin.
Few question whether Tomlin can get the most out of his players. He’s done just that for nine straight years. The questions rarely revolve around effort; more often than not, they revolve not around the players, but around the persons.
Exhibit A: LeGarrette Blount. Exhibits B through whatever: Le’Veon Bell, Martavis Bryant, Alameda Ta’amu, Chris Rainey. All drafted by Tomlin, and all have either league or legal discipline. Bell is staring down the barrel of his second suspension in two seasons. Bryant is facing his second, as well, and will miss the entirety of 2016 because of it. Blount was with Bell for his first infraction and tested positive for marijuana, too. Ta’amu and Rainey have both faced legal issues relating to violence. Questioning Tomlin’s vetting of players for potential off-field issues is valid at this point. It seems he is enticed at times by the potential athleticism and talent, while overlooking a red flag here and there. Some say, "that’s just business." Others say, "that’s not the Pittsburgh way." Both groups are right, to a point.
On the field, there are regular clock-management issues, a questionable fake field goal attempt in 2015 and, of course, the infamous Tomlin Two-Step. There have been lapses of concentration, judgement and, potentially, scruples.
But there is a reason players continue to mention Pittsburgh as one of the top two or three places they’d like to play. Part of it is the history, part of it is the beautiful city and its unique culture. But, mostly, it’s the opportunity to play for Tomlin, and the opportunity to play for a winner. Those are two sides of the same coin.
A common refrain here at Behind the Steel Curtain has been, "in Colbert we trust." That’s because, far more often than not, Colbert has found players who proved to be diamonds in the rough, often getting them at bargain prices (the 2015 kicker fiasco aside). But someone has to coach them, polishing those rough edges into shining facets. That someone is Tomlin.
In Colbert we trust, for sure. In Mike Tomlin, though, we win — consistently.