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Starkey: Mike Tomlin, Coach of the Year

| Thursday, Dec. 30, 2010

"Keep Calm and Carry On," a book of quotes that landed under my Christmas tree, wasn't written for Mike Tomlin or the Steelers' 2010 season.

But it easily could have been.

Whether anyone wants to acknowledge it, Tomlin has turned in one of the finest regular-season coaching jobs in franchise history, one that should earn him the NFL's Coach of the Year award.

" Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future. " — Niels Bohr

Be honest: Even if you picked the Steelers to win 10 or more games, you would have changed your mind — radically so — if you'd seen the trouble ahead.

You knew Santonio Holmes was gone, Ben Roethlisberger was out for a quarter of the season, Willie Colon was out for good and no high-impact players had arrived via trade or free agency. Flozell Adams was your new right tackle, Dennis Dixon was your new quarterback, and you somehow remained optimistic.

But what if somebody had told you that left defensive end Aaron Smith would miss the final 10 games, right defensive end Brett Keisel would miss five-plus, left tackle Max Starks would sustain a season-ending injury in Week 8, Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller would miss at least two games, punter Daniel Sepulveda would tear up his knee, kicker Jeff Reed would implode and the Baltimore Ravens would go 12-4?

No sane person would have predicted more than eight wins. The Steelers are 11-4 and poised to claim a No. 2 seed if they beat Cleveland on Sunday.

Do you think the coach has something to do with this?

It's incredible how many people would need to think before answering that question.

" If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, it's just possible you haven't grasped the situation ." — Jean Kerr

Luckily for Steelers fans, Tomlin failed to grasp his team's predicament. Refused is more like it. He never cloaked the adversity in the form of a premeditated excuse, to be applied to future losses.

In contrast to college counterpart Dave Wannstedt, Tomlin never made an issue of his team's inexperience at certain positions.

He just won.

Certainly, you could make a coach-of-the-year case for Bill Belichick or Todd Haley, though Belichick didn't lose Tom Brady for four games and Haley didn't beat a good team. A handful of others merit mention, but none has outdone Tomlin.

" Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant ." — Horace

When Tomlin calls, players answer. Rookies Maurkice Pouncey, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown and Jason Worilds have been among the contributors, as have veterans Adams, Jonathan Scott, Charlie Batch and Nick Eason.

As running back Mewelde Moore put it, "Coach says we have starters and starters-in-waiting."

Consider some of Tomlin's tangible contributions:

• He fired special teams coach Bob Ligashesky after last season and found a highly qualified replacement in Al Everest.

• He was open-minded enough to alter the offensive-line plan, cutting Justin Hartwig and going with Pouncey at the mentally demanding center spot, instead of right guard.

• He promoted Sanders to third receiver, in place of Antwaan Randle El, and stuck with him through mistakes.

• He made three dramatic moves after the embarrassing loss to New England, firing Reed, inserting Ramon Foster for Trai Essex at right guard and ordering his team to work in pads on a Wednesday. The Steelers responded with a punishing 35-3 victory over the Raiders and are 4-0 after losses, outscoring opponents 117-37.

" I am an optimist. It doesn't seem too much use to be anything else ." — Winston Churchill

The standard is the standard, Tomlin likes to say, and the Steelers' standard does not change: Anything less than a Super Bowl championship is deemed a failure.

Last year was a miserable failure, punctuated by Tomlin's false bravado. This year has been a stunning success, albeit with one big game and the defining postseason ahead.

Belichick's Patriots are a heavy favorite, but if we have been reminded of anything this season, it's that prediction is very difficult.

Especially about the future.

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