Kevin Gorman: Steelers’ Kevin Colbert right to have Mike Tomlin’s back
General manager Kevin Colbert tried to put the kibosh Friday on the Steelers’ reputation as Team Turmoil with emphatic support of Mike Tomlin’s leadership, especially dealing with discipline and distractions.
Colbert was right to have Tomlin’s back.
Oh, there were plenty of distractions last season, as the Steelers made weekly headlines that ranged from the abstract to the absurd: From Le’Veon Bell’s preseason holdout to Martavis Bryant’s midseason trade request; from signing Joe Haden to cutting James Harrison; from Stephon Tuitt’s biceps injury in the opener to Ryan Shazier’s season-ending spinal-cord injury on Monday Night Football; from the “elephant in the room” to the Jaguars in the house.
Not to mention the national anthem controversy in Chicago.
All of that would have cost a lesser NFL coach his job.
Yet Tomlin led the Steelers to a 13-3 record, one that could have been even better if not for an overtime loss at the Bears and a reversed touchdown call against the New England Patriots. Of course, it also could have been worse, if not for eight single-digit victories, three of which came in the final minute, two on last-second field goals.
Somehow, despite the drama, the Steelers kept finding ways to win.
They won after Tomlin benched Bryant for taking a social-media shot at JuJu Smith-Schuster. They won after Haden, their top cornerback, broke his leg. They won after Marcus Gilbert, their right tackle, drew a four-game PED suspension. They rallied to win at Cincinnati after the injury to Shazier, their star inside linebacker. They won after Tomlin made the “elephant in the room” comments about the Patriots in an interview with mentor Tony Dungy. They even won after cutting outside linebacker James Harrison, the team’s all-time sacks leader and Super Bowl XLIII hero. Undisciplined teams don’t do that.
That’s the sign of a good coach, if not a great coach.
Tomlin’s 116-60 record, six AFC North division titles and Super Bowl XLIII championship in 11 seasons should speak for itself, but the Steelers haven’t won a Super Bowl since his second season, haven’t lost in one since his fourth season and haven’t been back.
What Tomlin dismissed as “soap-opera stuff” — a remark made in reference to Harrison’s critical comments of Tomlin while comparing him to Bill Belichick but one that could apply to everything — is more distracting to Steelers Nation than the Steelers coach.
What Colbert called “end of story” should only be the beginning. If it wasn’t because of discipline or distractions, then the Steelers have to figure out why they were soundly beaten twice at Heinz Field by the Jaguars, 30-9, in Week 5 and 45-42 in the AFC divisional playoffs.
If Colbert was critical, it was in how the Steelers got “outplayed that day in all three phases” by the Jaguars in the playoff loss. The Steelers committed costly turnovers on offense and allowed Blake Bortles to pick them apart on defense. Tomlin made some questionable calls, from running a toss sweep on fourth down in the first quarter to the onside kick and clock management in the fourth.
Tomlin said self-evaluation is part of his offseason process, so those are issues that should be addressed in training camp at Saint Vincent College, an insular setting that Tomlin called “pure” for a football team.
“If you’re not trying to get better, what are you doing?” Tomlin said. “You don’t get to do this for 12 years if you’re not taking that approach.”
Antonio Brown’s arrival at Saint Vincent College by helicopter didn’t help the cause, but Tomlin is wise enough to know which distractions he can live with and which ones he can’t.
Maybe that’s why Harrison is retired, Bryant was traded to the Oakland Raiders, Todd Haley is now calling plays for the Cleveland Browns and safety Mike Mitchell was cut loose after calling out the Jaguars. That doesn’t mean there won’t be drama this season. You can count on it.
If the Steelers are a soap opera, they’re one worth watching.
But Tomlin knows the Steelers’ standard, and that they are a better show when the season finale involves a Super Bowl.
Until then, everything else is just a distraction.
End of story.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at [email protected] or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.