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Sunday, Nov. 8, 2009

When Mike Tomlin scans the opposing sideline Monday night in Denver, the Steelers coach essentially will be looking at a younger version of himself in rookie Broncos coach Josh McDaniels.

McDaniels, 33, is trying to follow in the footsteps of Tomlin, 37, the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl.

Two years ago, Tomlin was the new kid on the NFL block, the youngest coach in the league and commander of one of the league's most decorated franchises. But when Tomlin led the Steelers to the championship win over Arizona last year, it led NFL owners to entrust their franchises to other young, untested coaches.

McDaniels is having the best season of the first-year bunch, leading the Broncos to a 6-1 record. Tampa Bay's Raheem Morris, 33, is 0-7, and Kansas City's Todd Haley, 42, and Detroit's Jim Schwartz, 43, are 1-6 among the under-45 group.

"Let's just say it like it is: Mike Tomlin and Josh McDaniels are two dynamic guys. Regardless of their age, you're talking about two special coaches," said Jon Gruden, the youngest coach to win a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers until Tomlin's victory.

Tomlin has been so successful — 27-12 overall and 3-1 in the postseason — that his youth has become irrelevant.

McDaniels overcame a rocky beginning because of the offseason trade of franchise quarterback Jay Cutler to Chicago and challenges from a veteran roster, including star wide receiver Brandon Marshall.

Led by new starting quarterback, Kyle Orton, who was acquired in a stunning trade for Cutler, the Broncos are atop the AFC West.

Said retired wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who played under Gruden and Tomlin at Tampa Bay: "I don't think age matters. It's all about the coach and how you deal with players. Jon Gruden was young when he was hired. He wasn't a 50-year-old dude. Bill Cowher was young. Young head coaches have always been hired. It's just that a couple of them came in a little bit of a sequence."

Gruden, the color commentator on ESPN Monday Night Football, which will broadcast the game, said it's folly to concentrate on the youth of Tomlin and McDaniels while overlooking their credentials.

Gruden faced similar scrutiny upon becoming coach of the Oakland Raiders.

"I've always been very sensitive about that. I think you get hired because you have what it takes to lead your organization," Gruden said in a phone interview. "I always felt every job I got was because somebody felt I could get the job done.

"Mike Tomlin and Josh McDaniels had an extensive history as assistant coaches in this league with very good organizations. Both of them had Super Bowl rings on their fingers before they became a head coach."

Tomlin was Gruden's secondary coach, when Tampa Bay defeated Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII. McDaniel was an assistant on New England's championship teams.

"There's not a better leader, a more creative, stimulating guy (than Tomlin)," said Gruden, who was fired after last season following seven seasons with Tampa Bay. "Whether he got his head coaching job when he was 32, 37 or 39, to me, that's a moot point."

Earning respect of the players, regardless of age, is a key to success, NFL insiders say. Former NFL safety Matt Bowen saw evidence of that when the Steelers confronted adversity on the league's grandest stage — Super Bowl XLIII.

The dramatic fashion in which the Steelers rallied in the closing minutes to defeat the Cardinals revealed the players' true feelings for their coach, Bowen said.

"You can tell by the way they play football, the way they play all four quarters. Look at the Super Bowl last year. They had to drive down the field to win. That's players playing for their head coach," said Bowen, who writes about the NFL for the National Football Post. "When you do that as a coach, you're coaching. You're making your players want more every time they go on the field."

Johnson said Tomlin won over the Steelers players because he didn't change his personality.

"He's not trying to be Tony Dungy. He's not trying to be Bill Cowher. He's not trying to be Brad Childress. He's just trying to be Mike Tomlin," Johnson said. "Players will respect you if you just be yourself.

"(Cleveland Browns coach) Eric Mangini, he wants to be Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, instead of Eric Mangini. He'd get a whole lot done if he'd just be Eric Mangini, coach the team and go about his business."

McDaniels also is a Belichick coaching disciple. Yet, McDaniels goes about his business differently than stoic Belichick.

When the Broncos defeated New England, 20-17, in overtime Oct. 11, McDaniels celebrated with his players on the field: a Belichick no-no.

"If you're a veteran guy, an older guy, you're going to have questions about a new head coach, a young head coach. I would," Bowen said. "But it's obvious (the Broncos) don't anymore. Guys were running over to him after the New England game, hugging him. You don't see that type of emotion from the head coach in a regular-season game."

Steelers linebacker James Farrior, 34, is one of the oldest players on the team. He believes Tomlin has been a welcome addition to a veteran roster that needed a spark.

"I feel like it'a a good thing that he's so young and that he's so close to our generation," said Farrior, the Steelers' leading tackler. "He can relate a lot better than older coaches. He's a couple of years older than me. I feel like he can talk to the players on the level that we're on. He's able to get his point across, and that's probably the main thing."

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