"When you're a head coach at this level, working for an organization with the tradition of excellence the Pittsburgh Steelers have built for the past 43 years, you have to be prepared for all that comes with it. You have to expect that, much like the praise and accolades, slings and arrows will also come at you from all directions. It's both humbling and challenging, and it's something I accept and embrace."
As he prepares for his ninth season in Pittsburgh, this is how I imagine Mike Tomlin answering a question regarding what it's been like to be a head coach of one of the most successful and popular franchises in sports for the past eight years after taking over for the legendary Bill Cowher in January of 2007.
Speaking of legends. Not only did Tomlin take over for a legend who took over for an even bigger legend--the late Chuck Noll--but he inherited a team that was 11 months removed from winning a Super Bowl and seemingly had all the parts in place to continue to succeed, despite an 8-8 and playoff-less season in 2006. Unlike Cowher, who inherited a team from Noll that had only been to the playoffs one time in seven seasons when he was hired in 1992 and had a chance to implement his vision and philosophy right away, Tomlin got behind the wheel of a juggernaut, complete with a franchise quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger; popular players such as Hines Ward, Troy Polamalu and Joey Porter; and an institution of a defensive coordinator in the legendary Dick LeBeau.
It could have been easy for Tomlin, less than two months away from his 35th birthday when he was hired, to force his visions and philosophies on a veteran team with superstars and recent success. Easy, yes. But it would also have been quite stupid. What's that old saying about not fixing something that isn't broken?
The Steelers already had one of the most successful defenses in the NFL, led by one of the league's best coordinators who utilized a 3-4, zone-blitz scheme. Sure, maybe the Rooney family dictated to Tomlin that LeBeau and his philosophy remain, but the pieces were already in place, so it would have been silly for Tomlin to try to force his Tampa 2 philosophy onto his players by bringing in a different defensive coordinator.
Heading into his fourth NFL season, Roethlisberger was already one of the league's best quarterbacks when Tomlin was hired. So, again, it only made sense for Bruce Arians to be promoted from wide receivers coach to offensive coordinator, once Ken Whisenhunt departed for the head coaching job in Arizona. Much like the defense, the pieces were in place on the offensive side of the ball, so why mess with it?
These were sound decisions made by a new head coach. But the unfortunate thing about that and the situation Tomlin inherited was that it made him seem almost on the peripheral of things in many ways. Unlike Cowher, who often dictated to both coordinators what he wanted to do during the course of a game, Tomlin was more hands-off early on, and that didn't help with the peripheral feel of the head man on the sidelines.
And, then there's the matter of Tomlin's race--African American--and the fact that he was hired by an ownership group that was largely responsible for a rule which mandated that an NFL team interview a minority candidate during a head coaching search (the Rooney Rule).
Make no mistake, though, the rule states that a team must interview a minority candidate, not hire one. The Rooneys would not have selected Tomlin if they didn't think he was the man for the job. There's too much at stake for a team like the Steelers to hire someone just to make a point. The name of the game is winning, and they felt Tomlin was the best candidate to reach that goal. It would have been easy to stay in-house and promote Whisenhunt or even Russ Grimm, the very popular offensive line coach and Western Pennsylvania native who emerged as a serious candidate and reportedly believed he had the job at one point.
But, Tomlin 'blew their doors off,' as the saying went, and the Rooneys weren't going to let a stellar candidate slip through their fingers.
In business, it's often a mistake to cave in to popular opinion or simply avoid doing something because you might offend certain people. For all his misgivings and shock-jock ways over the years, the one thing I'll give popular sports radio host Mark Madden credit for is something he said in 2007. When the question "Are Steelers fans ready for a black head coach?" was floating around as a topic in the pre and early-Tomlin days, Madden said, "Who cares if the fans are ready? It's none of their business." And he was right.
With an 82-46 regular season record, five playoff appearances, two trips to the Super Bowl and a sixth NFL championship, it's safe to say Tomlin was the right man for the position.
Still, though, Tomlin's critics said he was along for the ride in the early days--he inherited a Super Bowl team, so he should have won. It was a damned if you do, damned if you don't kind of thing, and an opinion that will always be popular with Tomlin's detractors.
But it would be a mistake to think Tomlin was just a pedestrian head coach in his early days who didn't have his fingerprints on his new team. In-addition to calling the popular Porter and telling him he was released in March, making Lawrence Timmons his very first draft pick in April (Timmons wasn't a very popular pick at the time. Coming from Florida St., he was compared to notorious bust, Alonzo Jackson) and having to deal with disgruntled Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca during his contract dispute in the summer, Tomlin had his hands in the mix from Day 1--including scheduling 15 two-a-day practices at training camp under the hot sun at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.
In Tomlin's second training camp in 2008, he placed popular Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton on the PUP (Physically Unable to Perform) list when he showed up overweight and failed the team's conditioning test. During the regular season, when Santonio Holmes was cited for marijuana possession, Tomlin deactivated him for an important home game against the defending Super Bowl champion Giants.
Speaking of discipline and public relations disasters. Tomlin sure has had his share to deal with in recent years, with the 24/7 news-cycle and social media making it impossible to keep anything under wraps.
From the problems with Holmes, the huge controversy surrounding Roethlisberger, the issues with Rashard Mendenhall, Maurkice Pouncey, Le'Veon Bell and countless others the past few years, Tomlin's ability to discipline and control his team (as absurd as that may seem, when talking about grown men and their behavior away from work) were and have been questioned.
In-addition to the arrests, suspensions and even a strained public image the Steelers have developed in recent years, Tomlin has had to oversee an important transition phase, where his team--still employing a franchise quarterback in his prime--has tried to remain competitive while at the same time overhaul its roster and deal with salary cap issues. Along with the blood-letting that began after the 2011 season, when the likes of Aaron Smith, James Farrior and Ward departed, it was basically mandated by team president Art Rooney II that Pittsburgh change its offensive philosophy and Roethlisberger 'tweak' his game. The result was the departure of Arians. Whether or not his boss passed down an edict to get rid of his offensive coordinator (this has been disputed by the head coach, himself), who Tomlin hired for the job was totally left up to him.
In stepped Todd Haley, who was not very popular in several circles--including among many fans of other NFL teams where Haley had worked previously--and came to Pittsburgh with a ton of baggage. Again, it would have been easy for Tomlin to make a safer choice and not force his quarterback, who was great friends with Arians, to stretch his muscles and grow even more at a position he already excelled at--especially under a new coordinator with a controversial history. But what's that about not listening to outside pressure?
Two years ago, Bell was drafted in the second round out of Michigan St., and it was quite apparent that the coach championed the selection of the young running back. The opinions on Bell were mixed, at best, early on, and Tomlin often went out of his way to praise Bell during his rookie season--even when it may not have been warranted--and this seemed to draw the ire of many. But what's that again about not listening to public opinion?
Rock-bottom for the Steelers was clearly the 2013 season, with the lowest of lows coming in a 55-31 thrashing at the hands of the Patriots, who amassed 610 total yards of offense. The loss dropped Pittsburgh to 2-6. Combine the start of the 2013 season with the end of the 2012 campaign (Pittsburgh went 2-5 down the stretch), and that meant the Steelers were 4-11 over a 15-game span. Not only were the Steelers clearly in the throes of their roster upheaval, some of the players they were actually counting on--namely Larry Foote and Pouncey--were lost in Week 1 with season-ending injuries.
If ever there was a time for a coach to lose a team, it was right there at that point. However, Pittsburgh figured some things out on offense--Bell actually was a good choice, Kelvin Beachum made a decent left tackle, and the no-huddle wasn't such a bad idea--and the team went 6-2 down-the-stretch and narrowly missed the playoffs with an 8-8 record.
About that 8-8 record. In his eight-full seasons in Pittsburgh, Tomlin has yet to experience what his legendary predecessors went through a total of 10 times--a losing season. In fact, Tomlin has only coached one regular season game in-which his team was already eliminated from playoff-contention.
These things don't happen by accident--they happen because the person in-charge is really good at what he does.
Today, as Tomlin prepares for his ninth Steelers training camp and regular season, he has an offense that went through a huge transition--complete with growing pains and rumors that Roethlisberger and Haley didn't get along--and is now considered among the class of the league.
Roethlisberger is coming off the finest season of his career in 2014 and looks to be even better in 2015. While Roethlisberger probably doesn't enjoy the same type of closeness with Haley that he did with Arians, very few people are questioning the OC's credentials right now, as he's made a franchise quarterback even better.
Bell is one of the best running backs in the game today and quickly headed to the top of the line in that regard.
The defense is another matter, what with Ike Taylor, Brett Keisel, Jason Worilds and Polamalu no longer on the roster. In-addition to that, LeBeau is now with the Titans and Keith Butler has finally been promoted to defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh.
Much like the offense that saw a complete overhaul of the line, the backfield and the receiver corps, the defense is now in transition, with at least a few starting spots up for grabs as 2015 nears.
As a means to upgrade a unit that clearly needed it, Pittsburgh drafted four offensive linemen in either the first or second round over a three-year span. Over the past three seasons, in-light of the lack of takeaways and less-than ideal sack numbers, the Steelers have used their top pick to draft a linebacker.
There is uncertainty for the Steelers defense this season, but there are also some stars already in-place.
It took him a while, but Timmons finally began to justify his status as Tomlin's first draft choice and is now one of the most consistent inside linebackers in the NFL, making his first Pro Bowl last year. The newly-signed Cameron Heyward is also quickly rising up the ranks of elite defensive ends and could find superstar status as early as this season.
How well the defense--with all its new toys and a new defensive coordinator--transitions from its mediocre level of play the past few years will go a long way toward determining any future championship success for the franchise.
The offense appears to be ready, and if the defense catches up, 2015 could be great.
Tomlin, 43, has probably learned a lot about himself and what it takes to be a head coach over the past eight years. In-fact, he's certainly better at it now than he was during his two Super Bowl years. But why should he not be? I think people forget that, just like in any other walk of life, there's a learning-curve involved with being an NFL head coach, and people can actually get better at what they do.
Tomlin has already navigated many bumpy ships through the years, and he's achieved much success. After missing the playoffs two years in a row amid the aforementioned roster upheaval, Pittsburgh won the AFC North title in 2014 with an 11-5 record.
Fans may have mistakenly thought he was just along for the ride or on the peripheral of the Steelers success years ago. But, today, as he prepares for the 2015 season, Tomlin's fingerprints are all over everything.
Nobody can say the Steelers aren't Mike Tomlin's team now, and I'm sure that's a responsibility and challenge he'll accept and embrace--just like he has all along.