“We’re not ignorant to the challenge. We’re not going to shy away from it. We’re going to embrace it. We acknowledge that these are unusual times, and they may call for unusual methods.”
That’s a quote I can imagine coming from Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin as he addresses the challenges of trying to prepare his team for the 2020 regular season amid the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic.
Say what you want about Tomlin, but he’s never been one to shy away from the realities of any less-than-ideal situation. And in case you haven’t been paying attention, what we have here in 2020—in all aspects of life—is less than ideal.
And the sports world has certainly not been immune to the realities of COVID-19.
As it pertains to the NFL and its teams so far this offseason, it has meant players preparing for the season on their own, without their coaches around to see them, to evaluate them, to kick them in the butt when it’s warranted, to put their arm around them when a kick may do more harm than good.
For the Steelers, specifically, preparing for the regular season will mean holding training camp at Heinz Field instead of Saint Vincent College. It could possibly mean evaluating and making decisions on players without the benefit of four preseason games. It could mean losing a star player for a significant period of time if he tests positive for COVID-19. It will almost certainly mean playing games at Heinz Field and every other venue with few or zero fans in the stands.
And as much as we may not want to acknowledge it, it could mean a season that doesn’t start until weeks after it usually does and includes a schedule with fewer games than it usually does.
Less than ideal.
The teams that thrive will likely be the ones who don’t blink in the face of adversity. Fortunately for the 2020 Pittsburgh Steelers, not blinking in the face of adversity is and has always been a Mike Tomlin specialty.
Tomlin has often been criticized for not being an X’s and O’s coach. And while that criticism may be a bit unfair (you don’t make it to this level without knowing the nuts and bolts of football), I think it’s safe to say you’ll never hear stories of restaurants having to replace cloth napkins with paper napkins because of Coach T’s habit of drawing up plays while sitting down to dinner.
But show me a time when Mike Tomlin has lost his locker room. You can’t, because it’s never happened.
It could have happened in 2010, following an offseason in which quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was under investigation for sexual assault and ultimately suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the regular season. If there was ever a time to lose a football team, that would have been it. But not only did the Steelers survive the first month with Dennis Dixon and Charlie Batch as their quarterbacks, they thrived to the tune of a 3-1 record.
The 2010 season was one long test of adversity for the Steelers, as they battled season-ending injuries—Aaron Smith—and the target that James Harrison apparently had on his back during the NFL’s sudden desire to eliminate head shots from the game. Yet, Pittsburgh continued to persevere all the way through Super Bowl XLV and was one drive away from claiming its seventh Lombardi trophy.
All throughout the 2010s, when it would have been easy for the Steelers, a team clearly in transition after its second-greatest era in franchise history, to fall off the cliff and suffer their fair-share of double-digit-loss seasons. But that never happened. Instead, Pittsburgh remained competitive even when circumstances—injuries, suspensions, major roster upheaval—suggested they should have folded up their tent and went home for a while.
Just last summer, when news broke of the tragic and sudden death of receivers coach Darryl Drake, a man that was beloved by his very young and impressionable unit, beat reporters close to the situation were of the opinion that only one man—Tomlin—could have guided that team through such a trying time.
As for the season itself, it could have quickly crashed and burned following the loss of Roethlisberger in Week 2. Yet, the Steelers refused to blink—their coach wouldn’t let them. Instead, Pittsburgh remained in the playoff hunt all the way up until the final moments of Week 17.
I don’t know how all 32 NFL teams will respond to the demands of a COVID-compromised 2020 regular season, but my money is on the Steelers being one of the franchises that rises to the challenge.
And that’s because they have a head coach who never blinks in the face of adversity.