Of course, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is a man who demands and commands respect. Regardless of who is on his team, how much cachet they have, and what their salary is, it’s universally known that Tomlin is and has always been a great leader of men.
But politics are as much a part of an NFL locker room as they are any workplace across America. And when it comes to an NFL team with a franchise quarterback who has the status of a Ben Roethlisberger, it’s probably a little trickier to make blanket rules and mandates that all must follow.
We found that out when it came to Tomlin’s handling of Antonio Brown; shortly after the 2018 season came to a screeching halt, it was reported that Brown had his own set of rules— for example, he was repeatedly late for meetings without consequence and even had his own living quarters at training camp.
Different rules for different players.
There’s no question Roethlisberger has his own set of rules—he may even have his own Air BnB out in Latrobe. This may come as a surprise to those who don’t think Tomlin is disciplined enough, but it’s probably like that in most places. Anyone who doesn’t think superstar athletes don’t have great influence over what they get to do, what players get to stick around on the roster with them (Ryan Switzer) and even who the assistant coaches are (“Not Todd Haley or I’ll retire”) is fooling themselves.
Different rules for different players, but only if those players happen to be invaluable superstars.
If we are to look for silver linings in this, a year in-which the Steelers will have to play the vast-majority of their games without the one player everyone from layman to expert agrees is the one no team can win without—the franchise quarterback—one of them is that Tomlin will get to call all the shots and won’t have to compromise when it comes to a superstar.
Are there active superstars on the Pittsburgh Steelers right now? Receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is certainly a superstar, but he has yet to prove he’s invaluable without Brown lining up on the other side.
Maurkice Pouncey, Cameron Heyward, David DeCastro, Stephon Tuitt, Vince Williams and even Alejandro Villanueva are stars on the team, but even if they were of the superstar variety, they’ve long-since proven to be team-first guys who will do whatever is best to help pull the rope in the right direction.
There’s currently nobody on this team who can challenge Tomlin in any way, not with his cachet and/or superstar status. You know what that means? We finally, truly get to see the Tomlin Way. We get to see what happens when all 53 men on his roster have to answer to him equally.
He doesn’t have to worry about Mason Rudolph’s ego and whether or not he will like the game-plan put together by offensive coordinator Randy Fichtner when Rudolph makes his first career start at quarterback on Sunday afternoon against the 49ers. Who is Rudolph? He’s just a young quarterback looking to make his mark. He wouldn’t dare audible out of a play. He wouldn’t dare insist that Switzer be out there if his coaches felt differently. Even if Rudolph hates play-action as much as Roethlisberger reportedly does, oh well. Tough.
Politics (at least office politics) aside—and this article isn’t meant to demonize Roethlisberger in any way—we also get to see how well Tomlin can navigate his team through a difficult situation.
And, make no mistake, this is a difficult situation.
Thankfully, Tomlin has never lost his team. I know what you’re going to say, “Oh, great, now he’s going to point out the lack of a losing record.” Yeah, that, and the fact that Big Ben was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season. Yet, the team still managed to go 3-1 to start the year on the way to an AFC Championship and berth in Super Bowl XLV.
For my money, 2010 was Tomlin’s greatest coaching job. A close second was 2013, when the Steelers started out 0-4, 2-6 and 5-8. At any point in that season, his players could have given up and resigned themselves to their fate. But they never did. Tomlin wouldn’t let them. Despite the longest of odds to reach the postseason, Pittsburgh rebounded to finish 8-8 and was a missed field goal from a kicker in another game away from making it.
After the unfortunate passing of receivers coach Darryl Drake over the summer, many reporters pointed out that Tomlin was the perfect man to keep the team together and get the players through such a difficult time.
They were correct. Regardless of how you may feel about Tomlin’s football acumen, you can’t deny his ability to reach his players and keep them engaged.
You always wanted to see what Tomlin could do without his franchise quarterback. Now, you get to see it. You get to see what his true strengths are as a coach. For my money, something like this is at the top of the list when it comes to his best attributes.
I’m guessing the Steelers will be okay despite their 0-2 start and the loss of their best player. Why? They have the perfect man leading the way.