First, a confession.
I don't trust charismatics; those people who can light up a room or win over a crowd with their personality or flowery rhetoric. Never have and never will. History is replete with such people gaining power and influence, only to be toppled when the curtain is pulled back and the truth about them is revealed.
Maybe it's my upbringing, my social and cultural heritage rooted in the blue-collar environment that prevailed in the Pittsburgh area during my youth. An environment that bred into its people skepticism of, but also a susceptibility to, charisma. Tough jobs in dangerous industries during hard-scrabble economic times can lead folks to grasp at any opportunity for relief or improvement, and politicians, revival-tent shysters and other con men can and do prey on such folks for their own material benefit.
Don't infer from the paragraph above that I'm in any way implying that Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin is such a character. He's not, nor is each person possessed of a charismatic personality in reality a bad egg. But (back to my confession), I'm always skeptical of such folks until they prove otherwise.
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When I envision what type of personality best makes a head coach, especially for the Pittsburgh Steelers, I picture coaches like Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher, Tom Coughlin, Bill Parcells, Mike Zimmer, Bill Belichick ; old-school type coaches. Hard taskmasters who don't shy away from being blunt in speaking their assessments of players directly to them behind closed doors, but who otherwise say very little of substance to the outside world, and rarely are quote-worthy.
Mike Tomlin came to the Steelers one year removed from when Bill Cowher's long drought of falling short finally ended. He was 34 years old when the Steelers hired him in 2007. Many have decried his early success as being based on having "Cowher's players", but that's nonsense. Only a fool would come to a Super Bowl championship team and begin jettisoning players just because the previous coach selected them. All coaches inherit the former coach's players, and assistants; it's what they do with them that's telling.
Coaches new to a team can easily lose the players early on, and either alienate them to such an extent that the team implodes (see Schiano, Greg of Tampa Bay infamy), or meld them into a reflection of themselves (see Coughlin, Tom of New York Giants fame). Or, as Mike Tomlin has done, a new coach can grow into the position and the team, imbuing it with his particular brand of football and character over time as the roster of players and coaches naturally evolves.
Mike Tomlin has guided the evolutionary development of the Pittsburgh Steelers for the past eight seasons with a careful hand. He initially kept most of the assistant coaches he inherited, but began, over time, weeding them out when they didn't perform up to his standard. At no time has anything been published that would indicate he "lost" the senior Super Bowl-winning players or coaches he inherited, not even after a heart-wrenching Super Bowl loss to Green Bay in 2010.
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And not even after two playoff-less 8-8 seasons, has Tomlin "lost" any players. In fact, and to the point of this whole piece, what Mike Tomlin has accomplished in 2014 has brought me to the point where I'm "ready to believe." Despite a rocky beginning where the Steelers led the league in penalties after four games, and posted only a 3-3 record after the first six, he has guided a very different-looking Steelers team back to the AFC North Division title and into the playoffs.
You expect a head coach's roster to change over time, especially on a team like the Steelers that sticks with their HC selection through thick and thin (three head coaches in 45 years...let that sink in). Actually, Tomlin has been reloading this team just about every year since his arrival.
There are only seven players left over from the Cowher era: Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Heath Miller, Ike Taylor, Greg Warren, James Harrison and Brett Keisel. Regarding the last two, Harrison and Keisel, necessity brought them back. The first two, Roethlisberger and Polamalu are future Hall of Fame players and, as such, any first-time HC would have been crazy to do anything but let them play themselves out of a job. Miller, Taylor and Warren, while not HOF material, have been steady contributors who earn their role every year.
Seven players on the roster who Tomlin did not draft; two of which are bound for Canton, and the others have contributed to two Super Bowl appearances. That leaves a whole lot of roster (87 percent) with only Tomlin's fingerprints on it. I didn't realize until I started writing this article, and I suspect many in Steeler Nation are unaware, that Tomlin has been quietly rebuilding this team starting from the "back of the room" if you will.
And why not? Tomlin smartly realized the great hand he had been dealt, inheriting a Super Bowl-caliber team and, instead of giving in to a new coach's insecurities, he set about leading the team his way and letting the starters and stars do their thing, all the while planning for the long term. The Steelers turned over 19% of their roster in Tomlin's first year (2007), and that was the second lowest total of Tomlin's tenure, behind only the 2010 to 2011 roster changes (15%). Other than those two years, Tomlin and Steelers' GM Kevin Colbert have been turning over the roster at an average rate of 29 percent. That equates to 15 new players every year.
It takes time to build depth. It takes time for players to grow into their positions and their roles on the team. It takes time to build something greater than the mere sum of its parts. From 2011 to 2014 alone, Tomlin and Colbert have turned over 64 percent of the roster.
And all the while, Mike Tomlin and his chosen coaches (Dick LeBeau he chose to keep, in keeping with his treatment of another coach's star players) have been quietly rebuilding this team around the veterans he inherited. Remember during the Divisional Championship game last Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals, how broadcaster Chris Collinsworth repeatedly remarked on how the Steelers secondary was a "patchwork of castoff players" who have over the course of this season melded together into an effective unit? Tomlin's and Colbert's work.
Want more proof? Who picked Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell, Lawrence Timmons, William Gay (twice), Martavis Bryant? Who brought Carnell Lake in to become the secondary coach? Danny Smith to coach special teams? Joey Porter? (Joey Freaking Porter as a coach?) Hall of Famer Mike Munchak to coach the offensive line? Who made the tough decision to release running back coach Kirby Wilson? And with all of the visible and quantifiable improvements each of these choices are now demonstrating, who made them? Mike Tomlin.
I implied above that Tomlin was evolving this team into something different than what we're used to seeing, and it takes time. I have no doubt now that, given a little more time due to the complexities of LeBeau's schemes, the Steelers defense will show similar prowess in 2015 as the offense has shown this season.
So yes, I'm ready to proclaim myself as a tardy-but-nonetheless-enthusiastic believer in Mike Tomlin. Viewing just the 2014 season alone, Steeler Nation can practically chart the coalescence of this team into the AFC North Division Champions that they are. More importantly, who has led the Steelers' development into the seventh-highest scoring team in the NFL; the second-highest yard gaining team (only 3 tenths of a yard behind the New Orleans Saints); the second-highest yards per play team; the second-highest first downs per game team; one of the least penalized teams in the NFL (ranked 20 on offense, 26 on defense)? Mike Tomlin.
PaVaSteeler is now a believer.