Jamison Hensley of ESPN reported yesterday that ESPN's NFL Nation crew put their heads together on which coach had the best season among the AFC North teams and came up with the clear answer on the matter: Mike Tomlin.
There were only two proper candidates for such an award, either the team that went furthest in the playoffs in Pittsburgh, or the team that won the division in the Cincinnati Bengals' Marvin Lewis. Considering that Pittsburgh beat the Bengals consecutively this season, the last of which came in the playoffs in embarrassing fashion for the Bengals, Tomlin was the absolute choice on the matter.
Mike Tomlin kept the team together through some of the most difficult scenarios in the 2015-2016 NFL season. Whether it was losing the team's best linemen, all-pro Maurkice Pouncey at center, or losing Ben Roethlisberger for five games, only having Le'Veon Bell for four whole games during the season, or a number of other significant injuries that would force Pittsburgh to dig deep into its depth chart, Pittsburgh answered the call many times this past season.
Even facing the playoffs, Pittsburgh lost its consistent backup at the running back position in DeAngelo Williams, all to bring in two capable practice squad players in Jordan Todman and Fitzgerald Toussaint that would carry the load to beat Marvin Lewis' Bengals in the wild card round.
Disregard the injuries and you still have plenty of great stories on how Tomlin kept the team together in difficult times this season. When facing a 17 point deficit against the Denver Broncos, the Steelers defense seemed lost when it allowed eight consecutive third down conversions to the Broncos' backup quarterback, Brock Osweiller.
"Blink and I'll cut your eyelids off!" Tomlin could be heard saying to his defense on the sidelines. He urged them to stay focused and committed to the scheme which defensive coordinator, Keith Butler, had in place. The Steelers would go on to shut out the Broncos in the second half of the game and complete their most impressive comeback of the regular season against the defense that would clinch the Broncos' franchise its third Super Bowl in team history later this season.
Pittsburgh kept its cool amidst the fire and hostility that could have ensued when it seemed that nothing could go right against Denver at Heinz Field. Just as it did when the team faced a difficult road game in the playoffs against the Cincinnati Bengals. After losing a number of offensive starters and backups, the team looked to be in a desperate situation as Ben Roethlisberger was injured again and fourth string quarterback, Landry Jones, had to take the reigns. When Jones threw a fourth quarter interception, the team was indeed feeling that desperation for a play.
But it delivered, more than twice.
Ryan Shazier ripped the ball from Jeremy Hill's hands on the ensuing play. Then Roethlisberger trotted back on the field with an injured shoulder and proceeded to lead the game winning drive with third and fourth down completions that frustrated he Bengals to the point where they lost their composure and committed two damning penalties that would help seal their fate.
Mike Tomlin has re-built the Pittsburgh Steelers with his own drafted players leading the way and the 2015-2016 NFL season saw just how far his influence digs into the Steelers' depth players when, time after time, some Steelers' backup player made a huge play. While some people like Jason Whitlock think that Mike Tomlin "is a joke," but anyone who objectively studies and watches this team can see that he has a command of this organization that makes it a winner year after year, and this season was another example of the resolve he's built amongst the team's newest stars.