Kovacevic: One voice was heard after London
By Dejan Kovacevic
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
“We didn't buckle. We didn't blink.”
Has a beautiful ring, doesn't it?
You know, I'd planned to present here a blow-by-blow breakdown of how these Steelers bounced back after falling to 0-4 in London. Specifically, I'd try to dig up as much as possible about the 13 idle days that followed that Sept. 30 loss to the Vikings at Wembley.
How did the coaches handle it?
Who among the players spoke up?
Any significant changes in strategy or approach?
Well, turned out that quote up there told it all.
It came from Jason Worilds, one of several veterans I interviewed on the topic this week, and here's the full context: “We knew we weren't an 0-4 team. There are teams out there, when they get off to a start like that, you know they're missing something. We just stuck by who we are and what we do. We didn't buckle. We didn't blink.”
Maybe it'll show up on a T-shirt, should Worilds and company emerge from this Thanksgiving Day in Baltimore with a W that would, astoundingly, bring that record all the way back to .500 at 6-6.
The post-London recovery really was that simple, and it wasn't just Worilds who saw it that way.
“It was a matter of believing in ourselves, in who we had in here and the work we'd put in,” Ike Taylor was saying. “We knew that foundation was there. We knew that.”
Still want that breakdown?
The locker room that night at Wembley was unlike any I've covered with this team: Players sat silently at their stalls, staring at the cement floor or the ceiling but nothing in between. Barely a syllable was spoken. And the vets took it hardest. Troy Polamalu would only shake his head when asked some questions. Ben Roethlisberger was … wow, just crestfallen. Remember, that was when he looked glassy-eyed into the cameras and called the Steelers “probably the worst team in the league right now.”
It apparently didn't change much on the nine-hour flight home.
“It wasn't an ordinary flight, that's for sure,” Jerricho Cotchery recalled. “Nobody wanted to talk.”
Someone had to talk eventually. And it's entirely possible that it would have been Roethlisberger or Brett Keisel or Ryan Clark. Except that they never got the chance.
“That was taken care of by the head man,” Cotchery said. “All of it.”
All from Mike Tomlin.
Here's how Clark remembered what Tomlin had to say in the Steelers' South Side locker room, just two days after London, the jet lag and the loss still fresh: “I believe in the men in this room. I believe in the work that we've put in. I believe that, if we just take care of business, we'll be all right.”
And one more thing …
“If you don't believe in that, we don't want you here.”
That line was cited by every player I interviewed.
“It was Coach T's way of saying there's a way things have been done around here, and that way works,” Cotchery said. “And if you don't think it does, then you're the problem.”
As if to emphasize that, Tomlin took one additional step: He instructed his assistants to splice together footage — much of it from the London game — that pointedly illustrated the Steelers failing on execution play after play. Not failing on strategy. Not failing on skill. But failing because the guilty player would either make a wrong decision or apply poor technique.
“It was things we could control,” Worilds said.
Tomlin also stressed forgetting the record, just playing for that week. Again this week, Roethlisberger repeated how the Steelers are “0-0 and nothing more.”
The shift obviously didn't take right away, as Terrelle Pryor and Tom Brady can attest. But gradually, there can't be any question the Steelers have improved. Some of that's been personnel shifts, mostly through attrition. Some has been through Xs and Os, notably Todd Haley's concession to the no-huddle offense. For the most part, though, it's been what Worilds described: They're making plays they weren't making before.
I won't go overboard here. Tomlin and his assistants and these players are the same men who dug the hole. They earned every bit of the criticism they heard and read.
But there is something to be said, I think, for the head coach staying stubborn in the wake of impassioned calls for change — and I'm no exception — from all over.
I asked Clark, hypothetically, how he'd have reacted if Tomlin had told his players in that post-London speech that the Steelers were about to change how they do things.
“Honestly?” Clark said, looking me dead in the eyes for the first time in our talk. “I'd have been disappointed.”
Dejan Kovacevic is a sports columnist for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.
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