Steelers' Tomlin, Colbert like 'an old married couple'
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was disappointed when he realized it might be a little early.
It was the next-to-the-last day at the NFL's annual meetings in south Florida last week, and Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert were heading to Houston's pro day in the morning to take a closer look at cornerback prospect William Jackson III.
The night before the workout, Tomlin sounded giddy to make dinner reservations at a local crawfish joint to introduce his traveling buddy — the longest-tenured GM in the NFL who isn't also an owner — to the delicacy before figuring out crawfish might not be in season.
Tomlin, who grew up in Virginia, was disappointed.
Colbert, a Pittsburgh native, was relieved.
Sounds like, as Tomlin put it with a hearty chuckle, “an old married couple.” An old married couple that's in it for the long haul.
At the end of the April, Tomlin and Colbert will take part in their 10th NFL Draft together — fifth most among current coach-GM tandems — but it's unlikely anybody spends as much time together than the Steelers twosome, especially at this time of year.
They zig-zag across the country, whether to attend the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, the league's annual meetings or a pro day or to make an impromptu stop in Florida to convince free agent tight end Ladarius Green to sign.
They eat together and enjoy down time together. Earlier in the week, Tomlin and Colbert were in Bradenton, Fla., to catch up with Pirates manager Clint Hurdle and watch a spring training game.
“We spend a lot of time and days together studying video, traveling, meeting young men at pro days,” Tomlin said. “I think it's something he and I both enjoy. We have a level of respect, and that's why I think we've been able to do it together for so long.”
Steelers ownership always has put a high value on continuity.
Beside having had just three coaches in 48 years, they also have had only four people serve as general manager (or a reasonable facsimile) since 1969: Colbert, Tom Donahoe, Dick Haley and Dan Rooney.
The success has been almost unmatched.
Colbert and Tomlin's 92 wins together trail only the duo of Haley and Chuck Noll, who won 180 games, nine division titles and four Super Bowls from 1971-90.
“I don't like to criticize other people's way of doing things, but we do feel there's value in stability and continuity, and so that's worked for us,” team president Art Rooney II said.
That continuity between coach and general manager wasn't always there.
Donahoe and Bill Cowher reportedly butted heads during their eight successful years together before it got to the point where there was animosity. The Rooneys fired Donahoe in January 2000 and hired Colbert. Tomlin replaced Cowher seven years later.
The only longer-tenured coach/GM duos are Marvin Lewis and Mike Brown in Cincinnati (13 years); Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson in Green Bay (10 years); and Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis in New Orleans (10 years). Of current tandems who have been together at least four years, Tomlin and Colbert rank fourth in winning percentage (.639) behind McCarthy/Thompson, John Harbaugh/Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore and Chuck Pagano/Ryan Grigson in Indianapolis.
“I think we've both grown to understand each other,” Colbert said. “We've both grown to understand the Steelers and what's important to the Steelers organization.
“Of course, I was here before Coach Tomlin, and I tried to help him learn that. But he also taught me things about the outside world, and I think we've been able to mesh together and really have the same mindset as far as what we're able to do in free agency or the draft.”
A lot of the times, they think alike.
Even though Tomlin doesn't jump into the draft process until the season is over, Colbert values Tomlin's opinion.
They refuse to say who has the final call on drafting a player, perhaps because it's truly a mutual decision, which doesn't happen often across the league.
“Because we don't care who gets the credit,” Tomlin said. “We are just trying to build our team to the best of our ability and put together a strong group. We are singularly focused on doing that and doing it the right way. I think we are rightly focused in that regard.
“Personal agendas and things like that really never come into the equation. It hasn't with us since I've been with him.”
They have had successes but also shortcomings with the draft and free agency. They hit it big with free agent running back DeAngelo Williams last year but not so much with defensive end Cam Thomas the year before.
Successful drafts included getting Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt and Martavis Bryant two years ago, selecting Le'Veon Bell in the second round in 2013 and finding lower-round gems such as Antonio Brown, Kelvin Beachum and William Gay.
Draft-day clunkers include Limas Sweed, Ziggy Hood and Dri Archer.
Still, Tomlin and Colbert never have had a losing season together. Even when they transitioned to a younger roster a few years back, their worst seasons were back-to-back 8-8 finishes.
“We have a pretty fluid plan at this juncture,” Tomlin said. “I enjoy the time spent with him this time of year, assessing talent, building our team. He is a great work partner. We have great, clean and fluid communication.”
Just like an old married couple.