They say one of Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin’s main philosophies is to treat his men—his players—like men.
Guess what? Whether most NFL head coaches hold that same belief for not, that’s pretty much the standard coach/player relationship these days. Name one head coach who towers over his players like Vince Lombardi once did as the Packers head coach. You might blurt out Bill Belichick, the head coach of the Patriots, but his tyranny only goes as far as quarterback Tom Brady will allow it to go.
Face it, in a league where the majority of players (or, at least the majority of accomplished and/or star players) make considerably more than their coaches—their bosses—this is how it is pretty much everywhere. You come into the NFL with that “My way or the highway” mentality—one that used to work for you when you coached those varsity boys down in the Big 12—you’ll find yourself back on the recruiting trail sooner rather than later.
This brings me to the current dilemma involving your Pittsburgh Steelers and a culture that’s been described as downright toxic. Why is that? Is it the tone set by the head coach, a guy who, again, likes to give his charges a considerable amount of slack? Or is it simply a bad batch of “me first” players left over from an era where character and history weren’t taken as seriously as they are these days when scouting possible prospects for the annual NFL Draft?
This might not be a very popular opinion, but I’m thinking it’s the latter. And I say this because I remember a time when Steelers players would play ping pong and other such games right there in the middle of the locker room, on a work day, when they were supposed to be hotly preparing for that week’s opponent. Only, they likely were preparing for that week’s opponent, because the guys playing ping pong were often named James Farrior, Larry Foote, Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and a host of other people who really, really cared about winning and holding their teammates accountable to certain standards. Some of those guys were boisterous leaders. Some may have quietly led by example. Some may have even been followers.
Speaking of followers, they’re actually the most important part of leadership, because you can be the greatest leader in the world, but if certain people simply don’t want to follow you, it’s not going to matter.
You don’t think Cam Heyward is a great leader? How about Maurkice Pouncey, in my opinion, the unofficial captain of the Pittsburgh Steelers? You don’t think those guys command a certain amount of respect from their teammates? It’s obvious that they do. The problem is, getting all 53 teammates to buy into their message.
The buying into the message thing, the being a leader or a follower deal, that all comes down to character. And if recent draft trends are any indication, the Steelers have shifted their philosophy towards finding guys who fit the mold of “character player.”
Just take a look at the last three draft classes, for example. Other than Artie Burns’ arrest for driving with a suspended license, the trouble for these youngsters has been pretty much non-existent.
By all accounts, guys likes Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave, Burns, T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds and James Washington are just really good people. Furthermore, a great deal of them demonstrate leadership qualities—whether boisterously or by example—and most appear to be driven to succeed.
Whether they succeed on the field....for some, that is already a reality. For others, that remains to be seen. But as these youngsters mature and grow into true leadership—or follower—roles in the locker room, my guess is the culture that currently exists and is led by people named Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell (players who clearly don’t want to lead or follow anyone) will become much different and less toxic.
Will this lead to more championships? That remains to be seen, but it will certainly lead to better results for Mike Tomlin and his philosophy of treating his men like men.