Rossi: Book on Steelers coach Tomlin is still open
On a warm Friday night only hours into his eighth training camp with the Steelers, Mike Tomlin offered a rare real answer. The question was about job security. The presumption was he had it. However, Tomlin bowed his head into his left hand, then looked up while grinning before offering, plainly and clearly, that he questioned the presumption. He did not believe his job was secure. He never would believe it. He believed only that every season could be his last.
The Steelers staged their first practice the next day.
They played their 11th game of the season on a frigid Monday night. It was a big one, and not just in a congested AFC North. This game was about a lot more than possibly reclaiming the division, just as this season is about a lot more than returning to the playoffs.
The Steelers left LP Field with a 23-20 record since their last playoff game. They haven’t been, and weren’t, a bad football team. Of course, not becoming losers isn’t part of the job for the Steelers coach. Barely becoming winners isn’t, either.
Simply, the job of the coach is to win the division, win a home playoff game and have a chance to play for a Super Bowl berth.
Chuck Noll’s teams won nine division titles. Bill Cowher’s squads won eight. Those coaches’ clubs went 12-2 in first playoff games in Pittsburgh, placing teams in the conference title game on 13 occasions.
A born and bred Pittsburgher in his mid-30s, I’m not alone in having grown up hearing about a “Steeler Way.” I’ve discovered that it has many meanings. I’ve always shared the view of my late grandma Jean, who often sat next to me way back in the last row of section 201 at Three Rivers Stadium. During the AFC title game in 1996, she remarked, “Our Steelers should always play in January.”
She was right.
She liked Tomlin right away, but what wasn’t to like? His first team won the division, and nobody cared about that squad’s loss in Tomlin’s debut home playoff game because his second club delivered a sixth Super Bowl to the town with the great football team.
Tomlin’s Steelers reached the playoffs in four of his first five seasons and the Super Bowl twice. They turned Heinz Field into a rollicking winter party in January 2008, ’09 and ’11. Then Tomlin’s fifth Steelers team was dumped at Denver in a wild-card playoff game, and the party was over. Nobody realized it until a couple of 8-8 seasons turned New Year’s Eve into the unofficial end of the NFL season for Steeler Nation.
Monday night felt like a critical test for these Steelers, an exam they had to pass for anybody to believe the teacher still was getting through to his students. By losing to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Jets this season, the Steelers had cast doubt upon their capability to play into mid-January. Failure to leave the Music City with a win would have almost everybody writing them off as a playoff contender.
There was real reason to believe the six-point favorite Steelers would stagger into their bye week having lost two consecutive games to lousy teams, and a 6-5 record seemed inconceivable when they were 6-3 and Ben Roethlisberger was passing the football better than most quarterbacks in NFL history.
By my math, the Steelers were only 11-9 against teams with losing records over the past three seasons. By Wall Street Journal research, the Steelers had lost seven games over that span when favored by at least three points — an embarrassing AFC-high total for a franchise that is the historical class of the conference.
At some point in every season, a football team faces a potential breaking point. The Steelers faced theirs against the Titans, and this contest was equally significant to the narrative about Tomlin because, at some point, all narratives change.
Yes, even for Steelers coaches.
Noll was a master until the game passed him by in the late 1980s. Cowher couldn’t win the big one until he finally won four big ones, all away from Pittsburgh, over a magical six-week stretch of 2006.
The book on Tomlin is incomplete, but the promise of early chapters had given way to plot holes, poor character development and tired wordplay. He’ll certainly get to write his own ending, and the Steelers’ rally Monday night from an 11-point, fourth-quarter deficit should provide an opportunity to turn an important page.
They just beat a bad team, and though the standard should be higher, this was a start.
Tomlin said he believes every season could be his last. At times this season, including through three quarters against the Titans, it seemed as though his bosses should at least consider taking Tomlin’s words into consideration.
The Steelers are tough to figure out, frustrating to watch and surely maddening to coach. But they’re also 7-4, and Tomlin has them in position to find their way.