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Tomlin adapts to rigors of camp

| Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009

During the first week of training camp, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin held Hines Ward out of most of the practices so the younger wideouts could get more work -- and so the 12th-year veteran, who answers to the nickname "Papa Smurf," could preserve his legs.

Ward saw a different side of Tomlin two years ago.

Tomlin, then in his first season as the Steelers' coach, actually made Ward leave practice one day to change the T-shirt he had on under his pads.

The reason: Tomlin had ordered that the players wear only team-issued gear during practice, and Ward, out of habit, had put on a Georgia Bulldogs T-shirt.

"I don't know how he saw it," Ward, who played his college ball at Georgia, recalled with a laugh. "Some guys would have been like, 'It's just a shirt.' But it was his rule. I went in and changed it and went from there."

Tomlin is not quite the taskmaster that he was during his first extended stay at St. Vincent College. As a result, the players have put in plenty of work over the past three weeks of training camp, but they have also experienced a less-demanding Tomlin.

"He's done a tremendously better job from what it was the first year to what it is now," said outside linebacker James Harrison, who will break camp Friday with the rest of the Steelers, "even an improvement from last year until now."

Added quarterback Ben Roethlisberger: "He is taking care of the guys, knowing that's going to help our legs and bodies. I think he's done a good job."

Tomlin is apt to roll his eyes when players offer evaluations of him as a coach.

But the players could well have done the same thing in 2007 when training camp felt more like boot camp. That is especially true since they were only a year removed from winning a Super Bowl and since Tomlin, then 35, had never been a head coach at any level prior to succeeding Bill Cowher.

One reason the players fell into line with minimal grumbling, several Steelers said, is because they understood that Tomlin had to establish his control over the team.

"He wanted to show this is a new program, a new start, Mike T., not Coach Cowher," Harrison said. "Anybody can guess that."

Not that it made a "brutal" camp -- linebacker James Farrior's word -- any easier.

"I think the older guys understood it a lot better than the younger guys," Farrior said. "If we went along with it, we felt like everybody else would go along with it because we have enough respect within the team that it works that way. We tried to stay as positive as we could and let everything trickle down."

The rigorous training camp in 2007, which was longer than in most years because the Steelers played an extra preseason game, may have come at a cost.

After a 9-3 start, the Steelers staggered to the finish line and lost in an AFC wild-card playoff game to Jacksonville. Injuries and heavy legs were the main contributors to their late-season swoon.

"After the season, (Tomlin) said he had to do it that way because he didn't really know the team and didn't really know the personalities," Farrior said of camp in 2007. "That gave me a better feeling for what he was trying to do."

Tomlin has been mindful to get established veterans their rest at camp, particularly this year.

Part of that can be attributed to the fact that he doesn't have to see them practice as much because he now knows what he has.

Such an approach could pay dividends late this season.

"He's going to push us when he has to, but at the same time, he's going to throw us a bone every now and then and take care of us," Ward said. "And that's all you can really ask for as a player. He's a player's coach, and each Sunday, you go out and give it all you can for the guy because he's doing the same thing in return."

Additional Information:

Different endings

A long and rigorous training camp in 2007 may have caught up with the Steelers at the end of the season. Here is a look at how the Steelers finished in 2007 compared to last season, when they won the Super Bowl.

2007 season

-- W -- L

December 2 -- 3

January/February 0 -- 1

2008 season

-- W -- L

December 3 -- 1

January/February 3 -- 0

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