Kevin Gorman: Reading fine print on Mike Tomlin’s deal with Steelers
If the Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t send a strong enough message this offseason that Mike Tomlin is still the man in charge, they made it official by announcing his contract extension Thursday as players were reporting to Saint Vincent.
Upon missing the playoffs for the first time in five years with a late-season collapse, the Steelers didn’t pin the blame on Tomlin. Instead, they rid the team of what were viewed as a pair of problematic players in Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell.
When push came to shove, the Steelers sided with their Super Bowl-winning coach over the All-Pro players.
“That’s something a lot of organizations don’t do,” Steelers 11th-year left guard Ramon Foster said. “There’s not enough of that because having that sense of comfort of having one coach for one team, you know what to expect. That just gives validation to him that he’s doing the job.”
The job Tomlin has done in 12 seasons made the move a no-brainer: He’s 125-66-1 in the regular season and has won six AFC North titles, has qualified for the playoffs eight times, reached the AFC championship game three times and became the youngest coach in NFL history to win the Lombardi Trophy.
Yet Tomlin is being held to his own lofty standard, that nothing short of a Super Bowl is satisfactory. The Steelers finished 9-6-1 last season, losing four of their final six games to miss the postseason.
The Steelers demand more from Tomlin, so they couldn’t ask him to demand more from his team while allowing him to drift toward lame-duck status. To do so would have cut his authority at the knees and led to speculation he was on the hot seat.
So in some ways, Tomlin’s contract extension was a mere formality. The Steelers simply followed team policy of extending their coach’s contract with two years remaining, even if they allowed it to linger longer than expected.
“I think he’s been coaching long enough that he calls whenever he wants to be paid,” said Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey, a team captain. “I’m pretty sure if he wanted it last year, he could’ve got it. Everyone makes it a big surprise when a guy gets paid, but I think it kind of lines itself up. People already know and expect that it should happen.”
But this one is different when you read the fine print. Tomlin was only extended by one year through at least 2021 — it includes an option — which just so happens to coincide with the term of the contract extension Roethlisberger signed in the spring.
That ties their fates. Tomlin and Roethlisberger won Super Bowl XLIII together, and their continuity is vital if the Steelers are to meet the standard of Super Bowl or bust. That the Steelers have more Lombardi Trophy-winning coaches (four) than players (one) makes Tomlin’s task more challenging.
“I don’t know that it’s a unique challenge. I don’t know that your experience in terms of being a Super Bowl champion really helps you,” Tomlin said. “It’s about putting up in ’19 and putting up day-to-day, not only for us but all of us who are vying for that Super Bowl championship.”
The Steelers strive to be the symbol of continuity, with a stable ownership in the Rooney family and only three coaches in 51 years. But it was clear something needed to change, as Tomlin’s teams were too talented to miss the playoffs but delivered too much distractions and drama.
That the Steelers sided with Tomlin should be no surprise.
“If you knew Coach Tomlin, you would absolutely know what he’s about,” Foster said. “He’s a guy that understands that you’ve got to change with the times sometimes. A lot of coaches will rule with an iron fist and guys will leave the organization miserable or you can stunt guys’ careers by doing certain things like that. He understands that if you’re within the confines of what he allows you to do, then we’ll be fine.
“If you play for him, you know. You know?”
What we do know is that Tomlin takes inventory after the season of not only the Steelers but himself. He knows that the Steelers underperformed last season, especially in losing at Denver and Oakland. He knows that as much as continuity is imperative, something has to change.
“I worry less about me individually and worry about the things that I provide this group in terms of what is that they need: the culture-building aspect of what is that we do, the services to make sure that they have an opportunity to compete at the highest level and be at their best,” Tomlin said. “That’s always my focus, so it’s indirectly focused on me but not directly so I don’t dwell on those things as much.
“I better be what the group needs me to be.”
That’s not just a Super Bowl-winning coach but a Steelers coach who wins the Super Bowl.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .