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The 2014 Pittsburgh Steelers at the three-quarters mark (plus one week): Part One

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Taking stock of where the Steelers stand going into the last lap of the regular season.

Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Besides being a week late, I'm also going to break this into two parts, starting here with assessing coaching and the front office.


Being head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers is like being President of the United States. No matter how great the actual level of power and effectiveness, there are those who expect or demand more and are destined to No. 1, be disappointed and No. 2, believe that the individual occupying that position is either incompetent or in some other manner disappointing. The head coach or President is being asked to fill a hole that cannot be filled by a person in their position, or anyone really. But they will be saddled with the blame.

It's useful to talk about this now because there was an important milestone reached as a result of Sunday's victory over the Bengals.

BTW, that's 11 consecutive seasons of eight or more wins for the Steelers. Only New England, with 14, has a longer streak.

And Mike Tomlin has been at the helm for seven of those seasons, making him just the seventh coach in NFL history and fourth with the same team to start his career off in that manner.

But he stinks, right?

-Dale Lolley

More to point, Tomlin will complete his eighth season as the third-longest tenured coach in the history of the franchise and the only Pittsburgh coach never to have had a losing season. Yet there are many who dismiss him as terrible, and even more who say that he's deeply flawed, though perhaps redeemable, the jury still being out on the issue. This after seven years mind you. The same is said about general manager Kevin Colbert, the Rooneys and any number of targets. This is rich stuff and you could write a book about the whys and wherefores, but I'll try to condense it into a few paragraphs.

There is an iconic clip from NFL Films featuring Vince Lombardi of whom the championship trophy is named. He's prowling the sidelines, hands buried in the pockets of his overcoat, ranting and raving.

"Everybody's grabbing out there! Grab, grab, grab!"

He's talking about his players using improper tackling technique during a game. So, here's the question. Do you think that he and his staff failed to teach the proper technique?

This is a little like saying that, if a student flunks a test, it means (and can only mean) that they weren't properly taught. There are, of course, many other possibilities. They didn't do their assignments, had poor study techniques, had test anxiety or perhaps they got drunk the night before the exam. There's even the less-likely possibility that they lack the ability to pass the test. This isn't to exclude the possibility that the teacher might be at fault, but to conclude that as the only answer, ignoring all other options, raises interesting questions about the individual(s) making the accusations. Maybe Lombardi was negligent, but no one believes that because, well, he's Lombardi.

The great thing about coaching at the professional level and in much of front-office operations is that it's this big black box. Few people actually know what's going on inside, which gives observers a great deal of freedom in making interpretations that can rarely be totally proven or disproven. This circumstance is perfect for those who operate by the credo that it's true because I said so. That is to say, it's an inkblot test, perfect for scapegoating. But why is scapegoating so appealing to some?

One of the great strengths of Steelers Nation is its intense passion for the team and the game. But it's also its greatest weakness. The exploits and welfare of the team can serve as an illegitimate substitute for needs and desires that have nothing to do with football, such as the need and desire to feel significant. There is also the need to assert power and control. And one particularly effective technique is to withhold approval.

You have, indeed, been a very fortunate individual if you haven't been subjected to this tactic at various times during your life. If it came from a parent, you've probably either been in therapy or in need of it. But it also comes from in-laws, spouses, siblings, friends, neighbors, supervisors, customers and children. The key is to understand that if you buy into their worldview you'll never be good enough. Ever. Why? Because the source of their power is all about convincing someone that they're not good enough and, therefore, must strive to meet their approval. That's how one is kept as a puppet on a string.

So, you win this huge divisional game, on the road no less. It's hard to imagine a better fulfillment of the promise of sports entertainment.

Sometimes I just think Steelers fans don't know how good they've really got things. Even in this team's down seasons, it finds a way to stay relevant.

I've covered the Steelers for 21 seasons and have had just a handful of games that were completely meaningless.

Believe me, talking to reporters from other NFL cities, you don't realize how special that really is.

Well, the hell with you Dale. Because the secondary sucks, and LeBeau and Ike have got to go, and don't let damn near two hundred yards and no sacks lull you to sleep, the offensive line is mediocre at best.

The Steelers did not allow a sack and ran for 193 yards Sunday. And yet on Twitter, people were complaining about the play of the offensive line.

And we all know Atlanta is going to kick our ass. Have a great day : )

But surely they will be placated if the Steelers win the division, go deep into the playoffs and win the Super Bowl.


In a word, no.

If you happen to get over the bar, then the bar needs to be raised or the facts altered.

Tomlin wins a Super Bowl...Well Noll won four. And besides, Tomlin inherited a Super Bowl team.

No. Tomlin inherited an 8-8 team. Only there was a difference between Cowher's 8-8 team and Tomlin's. Tomlin had to make do at times with starters like Fernando Velasco, David Paulson, Kion Wilson, Isaac Redman and Cody Wallace. Cowher went 8-8 with Alan Faneca, Joey Porter, Casey Hampton, Hines Ward, Aaron Smith, Marvel Smith, James Farrior and any number of other players all in their relative primes.

Well Tomlin's team's underachieve. They lose to lesser opponents. A sure sign of poor coaching. Cowher, on the other hand, got his team into the AFC Championship game at home five times. Organizations work hard for that advantage. It usually means that you're the best team in the conference, if not in the entire league. They lost four of five times, and came within one play of making it a clean sweep. But you say that Tomlin's teams are underachieving? Here's what Rob Rossi of the Trib has to say.

However, he and his coaches have an 8-5 record from a team with overall talent that isn't comparable to the likes of league heavyweights Green Bay, New England, Denver and Seattle, or even division rivals Baltimore, Cleveland and, certainly, these Bengals.

Understand that I am not trying to bash Cowher. This isn't about either Tomlin or Cowher, it's about the position they occupy in most cases. I guarantee you that whomever Tomlin's successor(s) will be, some of Tomlin's most virulent critics will switch sides and use Tomlin's record to bludgeon them. Just like I guarantee you that some who currently sing the praises of Cowher over Tomlin once wanted Cowher's head on a stick for the very reasons I just mentioned. And if they're old enough, they had it in for Noll as well.

It also doesn't help that, not only is there the temptation to scapegoat, there also are so many unknowns about what happens in the coaching process to offset the ignorance. But there's evidence that some don't know about coaching at all, much less what happens at this level. Where did the idea arise that Tomlin is soft with his players, not a disciplinarian? How about Jonathan Dwyer? Why was Tomlin so quick to cut him when he was so clearly helpful to the team last year? We knew that he lacked a certain amount of self-discipline, particularly concerning his weight. Later on, after he left, we learned of abusive behavior toward his wife. I wondered why he cut ties with Weslye Saunders, such a promising talent who now is out of football. It was Tomlin who called Mike Wallace a one-trick pony when the entire world was singing his praises. And you have to wonder if LeGarrette Blount had something to do with Le'Veon Bell's current legal problems.

Tomlin's problem in the minds of some may be that he actually treats those he leads like men. Several problems with that. In a society that has a history of commodifying human beings (especially, but not exclusively, those who make up the predominant ethnicity in the NFL), treating players as something other than things, children or animals, especially those who don't behave in an approved manner,  may seem wrong-headed, soft or otherwise problematic to some. There have been a number of coaches who, in order to enhance their own reputations, make a great show of the public disciplining and shaming of those under their charge (See Washington). And there are plenty of fans who crave the humiliation of athletes as part of the overall spectacle or simply as revenge out of resentment for these players reaching their particular stations in life. Tomlin denies us those cheap thrills. And a certain segment of the population might hate him for it.

Taking the issue of dealing with men a step further: I believe Chuck Noll's statement that it was not his job to motivate flies over the heads of many. The relationship that the vast majority of individuals who ever played the game had with their coach was that between an adult and a bunch of adolescents. All of us could use a shot of motivation from time to time, but it would be more appropriate for teenagers. As an adult and a professional who's being extremely well compensated, it would be a red flag if one needed external 'motivation' to show up to work properly prepared and giving the absolute best effort of which one is capable. Now, as a matter of full disclosure, it should be noted that motivational speeches were not Noll's strong suit in any case, but the point still is well taken. When Tomlin (and Noll) are seen on the sideline not appearing agitated, this doesn't mean either a lack of passion or engagement. Given their reputations for organization, preparation and delegation, by the time they step onto the sideline their work is largely over except for tactical executive decisions.

Lolley again.

Bell has gained 1,925 total yards this season. Two guys he can be readily compared to, Cincinnati's Giovanni Bernard and Green Bay's Eddie Lacy, have combined for 1,903, pending Lacy's game Monday night against Atlanta.

The Steelers didn't have a chance to draft Bernard, but they took a lot of heat for passing on Lacy to take Bell.

@ Kevin Colbert and Tomlin take a lot of heat for their missed draft picks. I get that. But all teams miss on draft picks.

Shouldn't it be noted that they got Bell, who's in the conversation for being the best all-around running back in the league, and Brown, who's in the same conversation at wide receiver, in the second and sixth rounds?

This brings Colbert into the conversation. If you're going to give grief for the 2008 and 2009 drafts; for Ziggy Hood and Limas Sweed and Alonzo Jackson, you have to also give props for the great moves as well. Taking Bell over Lacy for example. Brown is even more impressive. Not only to draft him in the sixth round, but to pay him when many of us were doubting whether he could function as a No. 1 receiver. Now he's the No. 1 receiver in the entire league, and they got him under contract before he blew up. Imagine the angst if the team had to worry about getting him back under contract after this or last season's performances? Think too about Pouncey and DeCastro, high-quality players picked up in the middle-to-latter portions of the draft order. Or if you want something even more recent, consider the coup in getting Martavis Bryant in the fourth round when he wasn't even considered the best talent at that position from his own school (Clemson's Sammie Watkins going in the first round).

Have the Steelers' personnel moves been perfect? No, and they never will be. Do you fire the director of admissions at a college because some of the students flunk-out, drop-out or transfer? Do you fire the head of human resources because someone needs to be fired? What we're seeing now is an organization that's pulling off an in-depth transition, without having its record ever dip below .500, and if they win the division, probably ahead of schedule.