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The challenge facing Mike Tomlin, and the Steelers, in 2018

For a head coach, success entails not only running a tight ship, but also finding creative ways to maintain your team’s psychological edge throughout a grueling season.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers-Minicamp Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As a high-school coach for the past 20+ years, I have been a part of more than 250 football games. I remember most of them, but some stand out more than others. A 5-3 game; a 66-0 game; a 49-48 game; games played in snowstorms and Nor’easters; games before huge crowds; games played in front of almost no one; games where we had big comebacks and won, or gave up big leads and lost; a game won on a Hail Mary; an overtime loss on a 97-yard interception return — even a game suspended because a goalpost blew down. If you coach for long enough, you reach a point where you’ve seen just about every scenario.

The games I remember most clearly, though, are the ones that hurt the most. I don’t know how any of you are, but personally, I hate losing more than I love winning. The wins are satisfying, but ultimately give way to the task of preparing for the next opponent. I enjoy them for a night but quickly move on. The losses stay with me for days, weeks — even months. One in particular will probably stay with me forever.

I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of three state-championship victories, and I remember each of those fondly. None has affected me, though, as dramatically as the worst loss of my coaching career. It was a semi-final playoff game years ago when we were undefeated going in and the No. 1 seed. We had a senior-heavy team and we were supremely confident. Our arch-rival was the No. 2 seed, and all anyone in our area talked about was Us vs. Them in the sectional championship. Our opponent in the semi-final had lost in the regular season to a team we had beaten by eighteen points. We were sure we’d roll right over them and on to the dream matchup against our arch-rival.

Except we didn’t. We lost, 21-20.

I’ve never been in a locker room more absolutely crushed than that one. Coaches staring in silence at the walls; 17 and 18-year-old kids flat-out sobbing. The pile of cleats in the corner where players who would never need them again had abandoned them. It was surreal. How did this happen? I was the offensive coordinator and I literally watched the film through the night, second-guessing every call, every decision. Why didn’t I use more of our spread stuff? Why did we run at their big DT so much?

Our staff convened the next day and repeated the exercise together. We dissected everything. If only our safety had wrapped up on that tackle; if only our guard had picked up the backer on that blitz. It was pointless. Every game can be won in hindsight. Finally, our head coach shut off the film. “We can go over this all we want,” he said, “and it won’t change a thing. It was my fault. I let our kids get full of themselves.”

We assured him it wasn’t his fault, that we all bore some responsibility. In truth, we did. He was right, though. It wasn’t a play call or a poor fundamental that doomed us. It was our attitude. We were too cocky — too disrespectful of our opponent. That disrespect affected our preparation and our sense of urgency. Inevitably, it was our undoing.

This reflection seems relevant as I consider the 2018 season for our beloved Pittsburgh Steelers. Specifically, it seems to define the challenge that awaits Head Coach Mike Tomlin.

If you’re like me, the Jacksonville playoff loss last January still eats away at you. It wasn’t the worst loss of my life as a Steelers fan (that would be Super Bowl 30), and it doesn’t affect me more than the team’s victories in Super Bowls 40 and 43. But it’s pretty darned close. I’m excited about the 2018 season for several reasons, none more than to wash the taste of 2017 out of my mouth.

The Steelers return a strong football team in a winnable AFC, so there’s reason for optimism. But in order not to repeat the disappointment of 2017, Tomlin is going to have to do one of his best coaching jobs to date. Specifically, he must conquer the following challenges: Can he keep the team from getting full of themselves? Can he keep them focused on the moment? Can he establish the right culture in a locker room with big personalities? The answer to these questions may very well define the 2018 season.

Here are three ways Tomlin might do these things, in no particular order.

1. Embrace the lessons of 2017

Foremost here would be humility. If the Steelers weren’t humbled by the Jacksonville playoff loss, nothing will humble them. They should be a hungry and embarrassed group in 2018, not the arrogant bunch we saw at times last season. Arrogant may seem like a strong word but when players are talking openly about looking ahead to a championship rematch against the Patriots, as several did, and when the head coach is suggesting the Steelers-Patriots regular season game will determine the site of the championship game, how else might you characterize their attitude?

Tomlin likes to say, “We don’t live in our fears” to describe the swag with which he wants his team to play. That is fine. But there’s something to be said for embracing a little fear. Ever been scared you were going to lose your job? Ever had your child get really sick? That sort of back-against-the-wall fear is an amazing motivator because it creates a sense of urgency. Tomlin’s Steelers looked anything but urgent last January against the Jaguars.

Think back to the 2005 Steelers. After twelve games, that squad was 7-5 and in danger of missing the playoffs. One more loss at any point would have ended their season. Rather than fall apart, they “went to the mattresses” as the mafioso might say - hunkered down, dug in and played like desperate men. The result was a Super Bowl championship.

I admire the “we expect to win” approach, but I would prefer (for the 2018 Steelers) that they instead play as desperate men fearful of losing. A humble, urgent Steelers squad will facilitate that and will create difficulty for the rest of the league.

2. Play the “Underachievers” Card

In order to get there, Tomlin may have to step out of his comfort zone. I would imagine he’s done some self-reflection between January and now. I would think he’s asked himself, What can I do better? If he hasn’t, he’s doing both himself and the franchise a disservice.

If Tomlin has turned inward, I hope he’s concluded that he doesn’t challenge his star players enough. Tomlin is often called a “player’s coach,” which can mean many things. As a compliment, it means he treats his players as adults, gives them input on the important jobs they do and has their backs in the media. As a criticism, it means he affords them too long a leash and fails to properly exert his authority. I don’t know if Tomlin is the former, the latter, or somewhere in between. Regardless, he should find a way to compel his star players to reach another level.

Bill Parcells was renowned for knowing how to get under the skin of his guys in a way that motivated them. He hinted that Phil Simms wasn’t smart enough to be a pro quarterback. He bestowed the nickname “Toast” on cornerback Elvis Patterson because he got burned so often. He even needled the great Lawrence Taylor about being overrated. Challenging those players while simultaneously emphasizing they were his guys was both motivating and reassuring. Those Giants teams responded by winning two Super Bowls. These Steelers vets could use a dose of that sort of medicine.

The Steelers have been a winning program under Tomlin in that they’ve won a lot of football games. But this is no middling franchise content with playoff appearances. When Tomlin says “the standard is the standard,” he’s ultimately talking about Lombardi trophies. Despite a supposedly star-studded roster, the grand total of players on the 2018 team to have won a Lombardi as a member of the Steelers is one. The franchise QB. End of list. This is a good place to start.

If I were Tomlin, I’d gin up a little “underachiever” narrative and see if I can touch a nerve. Le’Veon Bell wants to be paid like the best back in football. AB is supposedly the game’s best receiver. The offensive line is loaded with Pro Bowlers. But what have they won? Much like when Tomlin said, “I walk by five (now six) Lombardi trophies when I come in the building every day, not five rushing titles” to let Willie Parker know he didn’t give a damn about how many touches Willie was getting, a public tweak here and there insinuating that these “stars” haven’t won anything yet might be something they need to hear. You can still be a “player’s coach” and get under their skin. Parcells did. Rather than offering platitudes and sound-bites, Tomlin might need to call his stars out now and then to get the best out of them.

3. Embrace the grind

The NFL season is LONG. The ebbs and flows of adrenaline and emotion are natural, and it’s unrealistic to think that millionaires will stay 100% locked in from July to February. That’s the challenge, though. The best coaches keep their teams constantly engaged.

Mike Tomlin doesn’t strike me as a lazy man. He doesn’t strike me as someone who shies away from hard work. He has, however, had a tendency to lose football games to inferior teams on his watch. I don’t know why exactly, but it feels as though we’re sometimes mentally unprepared for these types of challenges. In short, that we don’t “get up” for all sixteen games every year.

Regardless of whether or not this is true, Coach Tomlin should embrace the grind of the long season and pride the Steelers on being a 24/7/365 team. The urgency of winning home-field advantage — which means not dropping winnable games to inferior opponents — should be a driving narrative in his speeches and habits. This isn’t high school or college, so it doesn’t entail Tomlin becoming a cheerleader. But it does entail great attention to detail. Tomlin cannot tolerate players being late to meetings — or sleeping through them — or acting like clowns on social media — or being lazy at practice — or taking fifteen yard “celebration” penalties — or talking about opponents down the road when worthy ones are immediately ahead. There’s a difference between letting guys express themselves and that expression getting in the way of results. Details matter, and in order to raise the bar to reach the ultimate goal, Tomlin will have to change a few habits and tighten a few screws. “The grind” is real, and Tomlin should compel the Steelers to celebrate it.

By nature, I’m an optimist. I also think Mike Tomlin is a good head football coach. So I have faith in his ability to get the best from this squad. I also hope he hates losing as much as I do and he enters 2018 more hungry than ever before. That Jacksonville game can be a great weapon to motivate this team to overcome the stumbling blocks of the past few seasons. Using it properly is the challenge Tomlin faces.