PITTSBURGH – Can Mike Tomlin finally get his flowers now?
Despite coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers for 14 years without a losing season, trailing only Bill Belichick and Andy Reid for wins among active coaches, making two Super Bowls and winning a Lombardi trophy, Tomlin has not been recognized as an elite NFL coach. Even in Western Pennsylvania, where Steelers loyalty is as much a part of the landscape as the hills and rivers, Tomlin’s abilities are still questioned.
But a 9-0 record changes a lot of things.
Playing through a pandemic that has disrupted the league, the Steelers have powered through the adversity on their way to the best start in franchise history. At age 38, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is back from an elbow injury, slinging passes and extending plays. The defense is showing signs of dominance. Rookie receiver Chase Claypool is breaking games open. As the Steelers prepare to face the 1-8 Jaguars in Jacksonville, Florida, the city is bubbling with talk of a run to Super Bowl LV.
Tomlin’s leadership, game planning and disdain for excuses have never been more evident. Even NBA star LeBron James, whose allegiance lies with Pittsburgh’s mortal foe Cleveland, felt compelled to salute the 48-year-old coach who had been maligned as a clock mismanager, bad decision-maker and more motivator than strategizer.
“Coach Tomlin gets all the credit, the majority of the credit for this record. Particularly in regard to COVID,” said Dwayne Woodruff, the former Steelers defensive back who won a Super Bowl in 1980 and is now a judge in Pittsburgh.
“I love the Steelers, I thought they were going to be a great football team this season, but even I wouldn’t have said that the Steelers are going to be 9-0,” Woodruff said. “Coach Tomlin and those leaders in the locker room, they kept this team together. Unlike America, this team has come together in agreement and work ethic and everything they need to do.”
The tone was set last season, after the future Hall of Famer Roethlisberger was lost for the year and Tomlin still finished 8-8 and almost led his team into the playoffs with a practice squad rookie nicknamed Duck at quarterback. In October, the coronavirus forced Pittsburgh’s Week 4 game to be postponed, which meant the Steelers would play 13 consecutive games to finish the regular season. “We do not care,” Tomlin said. In Week 6, linchpin linebacker Devin Bush tore his ACL. Time for Tomlin’s “next man up” mantra. Undrafted free agent Robert Spillane stepped in and helped limit Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry to 75 yards in Week 7. The following Sunday, against the formidable Baltimore Ravens, Spillane intercepted Lamar Jackson on the third play of the game for a pick-six.
“He’s able to get things out of guys that they may not see in themselves,” said Ramon Foster, the former Steelers offensive tackle who retired at the end of last season.
“When he said, ‘We do not care,’ I felt that, because that’s exactly what he means,” Foster said. “His mindset is, people either don’t want to hear about your problems or they’re glad you got ’em. He’s the guy that always wants to be able to minimize a bad situation. I don’t care if it’s a social injustice situation, I don’t care if a guy’s getting arrested, I don’t care if it’s just the injuries that you get, like we had with Ben last year. He sold us on the fact that, look, people want to beat you no matter what. So it’s up to you to get done what you need to get done.”
Even amid all the distractions of a deadly pandemic and the biggest racial protests in 50 years. In the first game of this season, the Steelers were supposed to wear tape on their helmets with the name of Antwon Rose, a Pittsburgh teenager who fled from police and was killed by a shot to the back. Pro Bowl offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a military veteran, replaced Rose’s name with that of Alwyn Cashe, a Black soldier who died from burns suffered while saving fellow soldiers in Iraq. It felt like a divisive replay of Villanueva’s 2017 national anthem snafu – until Tomlin said he had approved Villanueva’s message.
There are a few explanations for the varied perceptions of Tomlin. He has been measured against Belichick and the New England Patriots’ dynastic run. He takes risks. He’s Black. He’s coaching in an era where criticism is louder because there’s so much media.
As a coach who relies on personal interactions with his players, Tomlin says it has been difficult in this socially distanced season to connect virtually, without being able to consistently look his men in the eye. “It’s challenging and difficult doing it via Zoom and things of that nature,” Tomlin said this week. “But again, I’m not complaining. I’m just acknowledging. And I’m really trying to set up a mentality for the week for us as a staff, that we can get better in that area.”
No excuses. Do your job. Next Zoom up. Tomlin’s philosophies are particularly potent in this moment.
“I think they’re going to go 16-0. I really do,” said Ron Casella, who works in the service department of a local Chevrolet dealership. “Tomlin’s doing a great job. He’s doing a great job with the COVID and everything that’s going on. I think he’s handling it magnificently. I was not a fan, not a big fan, never was. But he’s won me over this year. He has definitely won me over 100%.
“I used to think he lost too many big games,” Casella said. “This year he’s really concentrating and I think he’s really got these guys playing above and beyond.”
In normal times, with the Steelers on top of the league, the grill smoke would begin rising from the Heinz Field parking lots early on Sunday mornings. Black and gold jerseys would be ubiquitous from Beaver Falls to Boyce Park. Mario’s Saloon on the South Side would be frothing with emotion. But even with the stadium and bars almost empty, the Steelers are a light at the end of 2020’s dark tunnel.
“With what’s going on in the political world right now, and with COVID-19, nobody likes to talk about that,” said Casey White, an attorney and season-ticket holder who was a Steelers ball boy as a kid and occasionally rode to the stadium with his neighbor and Steelers legend Rod Woodson. “The Steelers are a bright spot in people’s lives right now. They’re keeping the city together. If the Steelers were 2-14, the city wouldn’t be sticking out its chest, so to speak. With the Steelers doing so well, people understand that sticking together and having a positive outlook will help us get through these next couple of months.”
“It has served as a beacon every Sunday for nine weeks now,” said Colin Dunlap, who hosts a sports talk show on local radio. “When you yell at your television, when you scream at JuJu [Smith-Schuster] to lower his shoulder, when you yell at a blown coverage or something, you escape the moments of COVID, you escape the moments of racial strife and politicism and everything. And you just are a Steeler fan again.”
Despite all the optimism, everybody knows the job is far from done. The Steelers’ run game has run dry the past few games. They eked out a win in their worst game of the season against the horrible Dallas Cowboys. Tough games remain against Baltimore, Buffalo, Indianapolis and Cleveland. “The only thing perfect about us is our record,” Tomlin said.
The Patriots started 8-0 last year, then went 4-4 the rest of the way and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The Patriots also went 16-0 in 2007, then were stunned by the New York Giants in the Super Bowl. The last team to win a championship after a similar undefeated start was the 2006 Indianapolis Colts, coached by Tomlin’s mentor, Tony Dungy. And lurking as a potential AFC championship foe this season are the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs.
“I’ve been around this game a long time,” said Hall of Fame cornerback Mel Blount, who won four championships in black and gold. “I’ve seen New England go 16-0, and that’s all good. But the ultimate prize is the Super Bowl.
“Whether you get there undefeated, or whether you lose games. Just getting there and giving yourself a chance to win.”