The Kansas City Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since 1993. The Dallas Cowboys have won exactly two playoff games in the last 18 seasons. The Cincinnati Bengals began playing professional football in 1968, and in all those years they have made the playoffs three straight times exactly once. In places like those, making the playoffs is recognized as an accomplishment in itself. In Buffalo, in Jacksonville, in Cleveland, back-to-back 8-8 seasons would represent real progress.
“That doesn’t dance in Western PA, and I’m cool with that, to be honest with you,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “It’s our goal and ambition on a yearly basis to compete for and win the World Championship, as it should be. Our fans deserve that because they’re special.”
For fans of the Steelers, making the playoffs is only part of the journey, and back-to-back 8-8 seasons, well, that makes them angry. Maybe something short of storm-the-castle-with-torches-and-pitchforks angry, but definitely you-better-do-better-next-time-or-else angry. The Steelers currently are living in that wing of their fans’ doghouse.
Tomlin is part of the Steelers contingent in Orlando this week for the NFL Owners’ Meetings, and on the docket are a number of proposals regarding changes to instant replay, moving the spot for an extra point, expanding the playoffs from 12 teams to 14, implementing a standard for sportsmanship and civility on the field and penalizing teams and individuals who violate it.
But on Tuesdays during the week of the NFL Owners’ Meetings, the AFC head coaches are stationed at individual tables for 60 minutes of thrust-and-parry with the media covering the event. During his hour, Tomlin touched upon a variety of topics having to do with his team, his coaching staff, the rules proposals, the upcoming draft, even his sons’ favorite sports.
This was the setting for what turned into a discussion of expectations and the possible consequences of not meeting those expectations. It began with Tomlin being asked, “When you don’t reach your goal of getting to the postseason …” only to have Tomlin interrupt with, “Getting to the postseason is not my goal. My goal is to win the World Championship.”
That’s the workplace environment when your job is head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and it has been out in the open ever since Chuck Noll had his first team meeting after being hired in 1969, that session when he told the assembled players, “Our goal is to win the Super Bowl … I just don’t know how many of you are good enough to be here when we do.”
Noll won four Lombardi trophies and then Bill Cowher was hired in 1992. Cowher took the Steelers to the Super Bowl in his fourth season, and he coached them to a Super Bowl victory in his 14th. Then came Mike Tomlin, who was the coach for the franchise’s sixth Lombardi in his second season and then went back to the Super Bowl in his fourth.
In Green Bay, a.k.a., Titletown, the hometown team once had a head coach who took the beloved Packers to two Super Bowls and won one championship. His name is Mike Holmgren, and there is a street named after him.
In Pittsburgh, well, as General Manager Kevin Colbert said after the Steelers lost in Super Bowl XLV, “We were good enough for second, but second isn’t good enough.”
All along Tomlin has embraced that mentality and the atmosphere it creates, and he never has shied away from the Steelers’ legacy. In fact, he’s reminded of it every day as he enters the double-doors on the second floor of the team’s practice facility. To his immediate right are individual displays of the six Lombardi trophies and along the wall to his left are the six Super Bowl team photos.
“Man, that’s a strong selling point every day,” said Tomlin. “I walk past them every day when I come to work and appropriately so. I think that it provides clarity for us in terms of what it is we are doing. It’s a motivator.”
The Steelers have had only three coaches since 1969, and they have won championships with all of them, and that stability often is credited for the success of the franchise. But Tomlin said he doesn’t confuse stability with any mistaken notion that he has the football version of academic tenure.
“For me, I like the urgency of now. I embrace that,” said Tomlin. “It’s a motivator for me, personally. I just enjoy the challenge that the NFL presents on a day-to-day basis, and I enjoy doing it with the collection of men I work with in Pittsburgh.”
And Pittsburgh is his home now, too.
“It’s home for us, and really that’s probably the most appropriate way to kind of phrase it,” said Tomlin. “We’ve been blessed enough to work in a place we can call home and that has embraced us and we embrace it. Particularly my kids. It’s funny, the things that we do, the teams that we support and the life that we live is very similar to most people who live in Western PA.”