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Mike Tomlin, failure, and smiling in the face of defeat

One more quote from the Steelers Week 13 loss to the Washington Football Team.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

One of the by-products of writing about quotes after each Steelers game is that you invariably wind up parsing Mike Tomlin statements longer than it feels like you should. Where most coaches are some combination of bland-cliche and cloak-and-dagger, Tomlin has a way of being bluntly direct while also subtle enough that you only realize what he’s told you the next morning. It’s probably an indicator of the way the man thinks—one part metaphor, one part music, one part connecting-unexpected-dots, and five parts icy clarity.

Here’s an example that you may have seen this week, following the Steelers’ upset loss against Washington, which I think has been misread quite a bit already:

“Different points along the journey you get a chance to learn about yourself, who you are, what you’re made of, individually and collectively. And it takes the journey to reveal that. We’re faced with a loss now. We get the opportunity to smile in the face of it.”

Comments section trolls have been all over this line, particularly the notion of “smiling” in defeat. As per usual, the majority just giggle out unoriginal jabs like 11-year olds who just learned that “roasting” is a thing, but don’t really know how to do it. The truth is, I don’t think most of them even understand what he was saying. This isn’t some deflection to avoid confronting the Steelers first loss. It’s almost the exact opposite.

Football - NFL Preseason - Steelers vs. Packers
Preseason 2007 — what is he, like 16 here?
Photo by Jason Cohn /Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images

Tomlin’s first loss as a Steelers coach came in week 4 of 2007. In bile-inducing irony, it came at the hands of Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm’s Arizona Cardinals—the two former Steelers assistants who many fans (and probably players) wanted to see hired instead of Tomlin.

Coach T came to the post-game mic, clearly anticipating questions about how he’d handle his first ever defeat, and what it meant to lose to Whis and Grimm. He opened the exchange by grinning a little. “I hate to break it to you guys, but this probably isn’t the last time I’m gonna lose a football game before it’s all said and done.”

Losing always sucks, but dropping that game wasn’t a devastating blow to his fragile ego; it didn’t pop the bubble on the perfect season he’d been building; and it wasn’t a vindication of all the critics who just knew Whis and Grimm were better coaches. It was a ballgame to learn from on the journey toward a championship. And that’s how he used it.

The next time Tomlin’s Steelers took the field against Whisenhunt and Grimm, they beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl 43 and took home their record sixth Lombardi Trophy.

Importantly, I think that grin was instructive. Mike Tomlin wasn’t crushed when he lost that symbolically important week 4 matchup in 2007 because he wasn’t after “wins over the Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm”; he was after Super Bowls.

And he’s not crushed that the Steelers broke a symbolically exciting eleven game winning streak on Monday against Washington, because he’s not after 16-0; he’s after another Super Bowl.

I may have came out of Monday’s Washington game breathing fire because those kinds of historical threads are exciting for me. (Hell, I entered the game breathing fire because of disrespect and historical narratives...) But Tomlin doesn’t have time for that stuff.

Instead, he’s trying to corral a super-talented, but immature group of guys who have started saying things like “when we get to the Super Bowl...” or “pad your stats this week; ought to be an easy one.” Those are the kinds of guys who might get a little ahead of themselves and do something stupid, like, I don’t know, make a Super Bowl rap video the week before they lose the AFC Championship Game. (If you’re too young to know what I’m referring to, ENJOY.)

NFL: Washington Football Team at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, sitting at 1-4, having just lost an overtime heartbreaker to the Baltimore Ravens, Tomlin was asked about whether Dan Snyder and company had approached him about the Washington head coaching job (which eventually went to Ron Rivera).

“I’m the head coach of a 1-4 football team going on the road to face a Hall of Fame quarterback with my third-string quarterback,” he said. “Do you think I’m worried about anything but that?”

This moment was unremarkable on its face—we usually expect coaches to deny interest in rumors like this—but I’m actually more interested in that first part. “I’m the head coach of a 1-4 football team.” Saying the words “one and four” might not seem like a big deal, but I think it is.

I’ve taught at five different colleges in the last 18 years, and I bristle at one particular change in language that I’ve seen recently: a lot of schools have dropped the old terminology of “pass/fail” in favor of “pass/no-pass.” I can ignore the clunky rhythm, or even the Orwellian newspeek of “no-pass” (which is “double-plus-ungood,” I suppose). And I’m really not some old-school hard-ass, who grouses about participation trophies for 10-year olds. Rather, I hate that language change because it makes “failure” bigger than it should be.

Failing a class is not the worst thing that can happen to you (by graduation, it barely even shows up in a GPA), but it might feel like devastation if you’ve been taught that failure is so awful you shouldn’t even speak the words. How do you ever grow if you can’t admit that you’ve failed? How do you learn resiliency if you’ve never been genuinely knocked down, and then had to pick yourself back up?

In that same Tomlin presser last October, a beat reporter prefaced a question by saying, “Mike, I know you don’t believe in moral victories...” (Tomlin interrupted him, “no I do not”) “...but are you at least pleased with how your defense played this week?” Tomlin looked straight at the questioner and repeated himself: “no I do not.” Next question.

A softened blow (”well, you know, the season hasn’t started exactly the way we wanted to, but I wouldn’t say we’ve been bad”) is a lot like an an excuse (“we lost because they were holding a lot!” or “If X wasn’t injured, we’d have won for sure”). They prevent you from confronting yourself. Laying it bare (“I’ve got a 1-4 team”) cuts away all the illusions. It blows the smoke right out of the room. Saying it out loud is accepting the situation, so you can start figuring out what to do about it.

That the Steelers immediately went on a 7-1 run last year shocked a lot of people, but maybe it shouldn’t have. They faced their situation with exactly the right attitude. I quoted Tomlin from 2008 the other day: “it’s not what you’re capable of; it’s what you’re willing to do.” The 2019 Steelers were a 1-4 team; what are you willing do about it?

That’s how you turn the ship around.

When Tomlin says, “we get the opportunity to smile in the face of [defeat],” I have zero doubt that he means it.

A loss to the Washington “please come up with a nickname soon” Football Team means very little on the road to the Super Bowl—it doesn’t even knock the Steelers from the AFC’s #1 seed. But it gives the team a chance to get grounded again, to shut down some chatter about undefeated seasons and Super Bowls in week 11. It gives them some reality-check urgency as they heal up (or evolve) for the season’s stretch run. Most importantly, it gives them a mirror pointed back at themselves: We failed on Monday—we finally screwed up enough that we couldn't fix it. Are we gonna be broken by this, or are we gonna pick ourselves up and do something about it?

After last week’s Ravens game, Ben Roethlisberger said, “we’re disappointed after winning a football game; that’s a problem not many people have.” Not many are in position to smile after a late-season loss either, but this team can do that too.

Monday night was a defeat: so say the words with no sugar-coating, and then get back in the lab. Nothing important has been ruined. These guys are still in pole position to close this out.

Go Steelers.