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NFL Draft season emphasizes Mike Tomlin’s league-wide respect

With his commitment to every stage of the process, the Steelers head coach remains one of the foremost figures in football.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Jessica Rapfogel-USA TODAY Sports

When the Steelers started 2-6, fans were (understandably) grasping at straws to find someone, some thing, to blame for the start. Whether it was Mitch Trubisky, Najee Harris, the offensive line, Devin Bush or Matt Canada, fans of the black and gold had zeroed in on the names at fault for Pittsburgh’s horrific start.

Maybe no name was mentioned more in association with the team’s forgetful first half than head coach Mike Tomlin.

Steelers fans have long had gripes with Tomlin for one reason or another, some of which are certainly valid. Pittsburgh hasn’t won a playoff game since 2017, let alone a Super Bowl since 2009. His teams have looked flat-out lifeless more times than should happen for a coach of his caliber. Beyond that, his coaching tree is still searching for its first few vividly flowering buds.

But if there were ever one man who would salvage the Steelers’ season — push the team to the brink of playoff contention despite a rookie quarterback and a roster with multiple weak spots — it is Tomlin. The 16-year-man lived up to the billing, going 7-2 over the final nine games to not only maintain his non-losing season streak, but also to establish momentum for a rather young roster entering 2023.

Point blank, Tomlin is among the most venerated coaches in the league. Few have managed to keep his teams alive despite terrible circumstances; few have the year-to-year success and establishment of culture; and few draw rave reviews to such a high degree from former players.

Tomlin’s primary job is to impress with his work during the 18 weeks of the regular season, and he has done that in spades. If anything, though, Tomlin’s legendary reputation is most noticeable from the end of the season onward.

With Senior Bowl practices and festivities having nearly wrapped up in Mobile, Alabama this week, Tomlin took part, assiduously scouring over all types of prospects. No, Tomlin isn’t on the coaching staff of the game; the game is being led by Bears OC Luke Getsy and Raiders DC Patrick Graham. Sure, Steelers defensive backs coach Grady Brown is on Getsy’s staff, but that alone would not exactly be grounds for trekking down to South Alabama’s campus.

Rather, Tomlin is simply a junkie when it comes to all things football. If there’s a chance to become ingratiated with some of the future faces of the league, not to mention catch up with notable coaching figures, Tomlin seizes nearly every opportunity.

Tomlin is far from the only head coach at the Senior Bowl or a similar event, but his very presence and reception speaks volumes.

Wisconsin DL Keeanu Benton was among several risers in Mobile, drawing the interest of Tomlin and (current) Steelers defensive assistant Brian Flores. When discussing his interview with the Steelers, Benton said it was a “surreal moment” to be able to talk to Tomlin. South Carolina corner Darius Rush echoed similar sentiments, calling it “eye-opening” to be able to be “shaking [Tomlin’s] hand.”

It’s not only at the Senior Bowl where Tomlin makes appearances, though. When the head coach makes stops around the country — such as at Pitt, Georgia and Cincinnati last year — the room takes notice, his resume preceding him. To be able to have a chance to talk with as sage and authentic a person as Tomlin isn’t lost on prospects who have been on the biggest stages or coaches who have risen to the summit of the sport.

Maybe his multiplicity of trips are simply to accumulate frequent flier miles. Maybe it’s to create more smoke about which prospects are intriguing the Steelers. Or, just maybe, Mike Tomlin revels in the process of the NFL Draft like few others, yet another characteristic that emphasizes his assiduous approach to being one of the premier coaches in professional football.