Steelers' Tomlin puts his stamp on camp
Veteran linebacker Larry Foote laughed when he was presented with the most popular question of Steelers training camp.
How is new coach Mike Tomlin different from old coach Bill Cowher?
"Coach Tomlin's black," Foote said. "And Coach Cowher's white."
That was fairly easy to spot, but it was much more than skin color that set Tomlin apart from his predecessor during the Steelers' 25-day stay at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
The team officially broke camp at around 10 a.m. Friday, after a walk-through in preparation for tonight's preseason game in Landover, Md., against the Washington Redskins.
There is only so much variance among NFL training camps, but Tomlin made sure this one differed from the ones Cowher ran for 15 years.
"This wasn't anything like Coach Cowher's camps," said veteran defensive end Brett Keisel. "It was completely different, and I'm sure that's what (Tomlin) wanted it to be. He wanted it to be his camp. It was that."
Some of the differences were subtle, such as the fact Tomlin wore a whistle around his neck. Neither Cowher nor Chuck Noll did that, meaning Tomlin became the Steelers' first whistle-wearing coach since Bill Austin in 1968.
Tomlin also stood out for his wardrobe. Even on the hottest days, he wore a long-sleeved shirt and sweat pants or black shorts.
"It's part of the mental warfare," he said. "I don't want guys coming up to me and talking about how hot it is, because they know I don't care. And that's part of it."
Unpredictability was part of it, too.
"Before, it was a tight schedule, like, 'This is how it's going to be,' and we stuck to that," Keisel said. "With Coach Tomlin, it was day-to-day. We'd switch something, have (an unexpected) meeting here or there."
Tomlin didn't want his players on "autopilot." Games aren't predictable, he reasoned, so why should training camp be so?
But even if the daily schedule wasn't rigid, it was full -- much more so than under Cowher, if you asked veteran offensive tackle Marvel Smith.
"We didn't have much free time in between practices or even at night," Smith said. "That's one thing that stuck out to me."
The thing that stuck out to everyone was the obsession with special teams. There were seven special teams-only practice days. That doesn't include the days when special teams were the first part of a two-a-day or when they were incorporated into a full team practice.
When last seen in Latrobe, the special teamers were simulating the rarely seen situation of a punter running out of the end zone to take an intentional safety.
Players expected an unusually tough and physical camp, but Tomlin's bark was worse than his bite on that front. He scheduled 15 two-a-days (two full two-hour practices), for example, but delivered only four.
Also, unlike Cowher, he cut several afternoon practices short.
On the other hand, the hitting began almost immediately upon convening in Latrobe and often lasted longer than usual within a given drill. Tomlin also added defensive backs to a one-on-one, blitz-and-block drill that traditionally pitted linebackers against running backs and tight ends.
"We were in pads the whole time; that was different," Keisel said. "It was a physical camp. He wanted it that way."
As far as practice demeanor, Tomlin was more preemptive than reactive. He would sometimes gather his players before a drill to focus them. Cowher didn't do that. To the contrary, when he gathered the whole team, it usually meant he was angry.
Tomlin did much of his reprimanding behind closed doors, with all team members present.
"If he has an issue with one person, the whole group knows about it," Smith said.
One other notable difference between the two: Tomlin wasn't shy about informally interacting with the media, something Cowher was loathe to do over his final 13 years or so as coach. During a special teams practice Tuesday, for example, Tomlin spent 20 minutes kibitzing with reporters.
When the final full practice ended at around 5 p.m. Thursday, Tomlin's buoyant mood suggested he was pleased with how his first camp had unfolded.
As a pack of reporters peppered rookie linebacker Lawrence Timmons, Tomlin sneaked up behind the group and asked a question of his own.
"How is your coach treating you?" he said.
Timmons laughed and said, "He's treating me pretty good."