Steelers' Tomlin looks to extinguish flames of doubt in 7th season
Amid the howling winds and roaring thunder, Mike Tomlin barely flinched as diehard Steelers fans sprinted for cover during a rainstorm on the first weekend of training camp at St. Vincent.
The usually stoic Tomlin was far too focused to dodge the raindrops. He spent the offseason trying to figure out how to plug the leaks of a proud organization that staggered to an 8-8 record after posting consecutive 12-4 seasons.
With the exception of his first season in 2007, Tomlin begins opening day Sunday unlike any other — with more questions than answers about a team most expect to jockey for position in the middle of the AFC.
Conventional wisdom suggests Tomlin's perennial playoff contenders are rebuilding in an effort to reclaim their role as the team to beat in the AFC North.
For now, the Steelers appear to be looking up at reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore and preseason divisional favorite Cincinnati. It's an unusual position for a coach who led his team to the playoffs four times in his first five years, including a Super Bowl victory and a narrow defeat in another.
“Mike's record speaks for itself,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “He's gotten to two Super Bowls quicker than any other coach. He's got to be doing something right.”
Even with a 63-33 record, Tomlin enters his seventh campaign aware of the angst among the Steelers' faithful. He may not be sitting on the hot seat, but he knows the flames of discontent could be fanned if the Steelers stumble out of the gate and wobble down the stretch as they did last season.
So Tomlin appeared determined to get his team's attention early in training camp by instituting a more physical approach. He stirred up things by creating greater competition at three key positions: linebacker, receiver and running back.
“We want to increase the avenues in which to evaluate men or increase the avenues in which people can distinguish themselves,” said Tomlin, who at 36 became the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl. “Obviously, when you're playing tackle football, it does that. The opportunities to impress are very few, and we're just trying to increase them with how we work.
“I come to camp for one reason and one reason only, and that is to get ready for the season. Ultimately, camps are measured by the result of those seasons.”
The former defensive coordinator seemed increasingly interested in how the offense progressed while putting together the 53-man roster, which includes only 32 players from last season's opening-day roster. He often chided offensive linemen while also praising their efforts. He flooded the field with tight ends in hopes of finding one — Michael Palmer — to replace the injured Heath Miller and Matt Spaeth.
“(Tomlin) is very psychological in the way he deals with players,” safety Troy Polamalu said. “He challenges people in the right way.”
Now, it's Tomlin who faces perhaps his stiffest challenge as a head coach.
Tomlin is in a similar position of his predecessor, Bill Cowher, who led the Steelers to three conference title games and a Super Bowl in his first six seasons. Then the Steelers sputtered to back-to-back losing seasons before reaching the 2001 AFC Championship Game.
But a year removed from winning Super Bowl XL in 2005, a visibly exhausted Cowher bowed out after an 8-8 season. It was a frustrating year for Cowher, who pulled the team together during the second half of the season to avoid a losing record.
John Mitchell, in his 20th season as defensive line coach, doesn't expect Tomlin to suffer a similar fate.
“Mike isn't going to burn out,” said Mitchell, who also serves as assistant head coach. “Most coaches do because they don't have any other interest. Mike has a life aside from football.
“I'm not going to compare him to Bill except that Mike is more laid back and Bill had a high-tempo style. Coach (Bear) Bryant told me a good head coach knows the people he's surrounded by, and he hires people just as smart as he. That's what Mike has done.”
Tomlin is largely indifferent about trends, so he draws no parallels between himself and Cowher. Also, his assistant coaches and players were reluctant to make comparisons.
“The thing about coach Tomlin is he does well under pressure,” linebacker Lawrence Timmons said. “We may not have the results of the first four years compared to the last two of his tenure, but he's always brought us up from adversity somehow.”
Tomlin's ability to deal with adversity is a point of interest, especially among several veteran players. While he might be defined by how he deals with players, safety Ryan Clark insists Tomlin will be measured mostly by his bottom line: winning.
“All that matters is the win-loss column,” Clark said. “They won't have many questions about how he deals with us as men, which to me is more important than how he deals with us as players.
“To us, we all want to win games. At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how he relates to us — or whether we like him or dislike him. It's about the end result on Sunday.”
Tomlin, who often keeps his distance from the media or limits his availability, negotiated a minefield of loaded questions about the Steelers' expectations this season.
He admits it's a team in transition, considering it will face Tennessee at Heinz Field without last year's leading receiver (Miller), one of the NFL's most-feared playmakers (flanker Mike Wallace, who signed with the Dolphins), leading rusher (the cut Jonathan Dwyer) and arguably its emotional leader ( linebacker James Harrison, who signed with the Bengals).
“We all feel a sense of urgency,” LeBeau said. “It hasn't been business as usual because we have something to answer for. We want to give the people of Pittsburgh something better than an 8-8 record.
“We're all in it together. We share the glory and blame. We all feel bad if we fall short of expectations, but I'm sure the players are confident coach Tomlin can turn things around.”
In practice, Tomlin struts along the sidelines and behind the huddles to boisterously offer words of confidence. He appears more engaging and marginally more demonstrative, particularly when dealing with younger, impressionable players, many of whom haven't won or played in a postseason game.
However, he has far less sway over veteran players, who are expecting him to perform at an even higher level now that the franchise faces at least the semblance of adversity for the first time during his tenure.
“It's the first time we've truly faced adversity, so it's been interesting and kind of fun to watch him deal with it,” Clark said. “He's faced with a lot of doubt coming off an 8-8 season.”
That doubt, however, doesn't appear to permeate throughout the locker room or on the practice field despite a winless preseason. The Steelers, Clark said, are confident they have what it takes to make a playoff push.
“There are people who think we didn't do enough during the offseason to compete,” Clark said. “I'm curious to see how he goes through this process with us.
“This is different for a lot of us. It's different for him, too.”
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