Labriola On

Labriola on Tomlin, '17 sked, NT-to-FB

Ready or not, here it comes:

  • The victory over the Bills in Buffalo was enjoyable for the Steelers, but the flight home was not. Sitting in a plane for two hours on a tarmac as a steady snow falls outside has a way of becoming a buzz kill, and a number of us passengers turned to our cell phones looking for a distraction. That's when I first saw the tweet.
  • "The #Steelers are the 1st NFL franchise to have 3 HCs in its history reach 100 regular-season wins: Noll (193), Cowher (149), Tomlin (100)."
  • The author was @SteelersPRBurt, the team's Director of Communications, Burt Lauten, and the subject was the milestone everyone in the organization was anticipating. Mike Tomlin, 13 games into his 10th season as the Steelers coach, had just presided over the 100th regular season victory of his tenure.
  • Long, long ago, my father had warned me about being an unrepentant smart-aleck, and how such a quality might entertain some but undoubtedly would alienate many, many more. Maybe it was the snow, maybe it was the musky air in the back of that airplane, maybe I was simply living down to my father's expectations. But I couldn't resist.
  • I hit the retweet button, and typed: "But Noll did it with Bill Austin's players."
  • One of the recurring mantras of the anti-Tomlin faction within Steelers Nation is his success as the Steelers' coach can be explained by the simple "fact" that everything has been accomplished as a result of Bill Cowher leaving him a treasure trove of established talent, that all of this winning has come as a result of "doing it with Cowher's players."
  • With a franchise as successful as the Steelers' – in fact, it has won more games and more championships than any other franchise during the Super Bowl era – there is going to be some hand-me-down talent each time a coaching change is made. And because the Steelers have had only three coaches since 1969, it's easy to separate their tenures.
  • Their argument ignores the reality that a simple assemblage of talent isn't enough to win a Lombardi Trophy, as countless teams have shown over the last 50 seasons, and it also takes no notice of the fact Tomlin came to Pittsburgh with a background in the Tampa-2 defense but put aside his ego to stick with what already was in place – a defense that had perfected the 3-4 zone-blitz approach refined by Dick LeBeau – because it gave the team the best chance to win more championships.

The Steelers defeat the Washington Redskins 24-3 in the final game at Three Rivers Stadium.

  • We pause here just to let that last sentence sink in. A rookie coach in the NFL makes an ego-less decision because it's in the best interest of the team. In other words, putting into practice personally what he would be asking his new players to do often during his tenure.
  • OK, back to the narrative. That "he did it with Cowher's players" philosophy also forgets what Cowher got from Noll, it shows no understanding of how 50 years of organizational success is going to lead to nice inheritances. Cowher's windfall has been listed here previously, but for those either new to this space or who are among the cursed with a 140-character attention span, it will be provided again:
  • What Bill Cowher found in the Steelers' locker room the first time he walked in to take inventory were two future Pro Football Hall of Fame players, and seven who had been or would be voted Steelers MVPs by their teammates. There are 10 units on an NFL roster – wide receivers, offensive linemen, tight ends, quarterbacks, running backs, defensive linemen, linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties, and specialists – and Cowher inherited a team that had Pro Bowl players in eight of those 10. Only wide receiver and defensive line were devoid of Pro Bowl-caliber talent.
  • This is not a criticism of the job Cowher did, only a reminder of some of the pertinent facts during the Noll-to-Cowher changeover. And the Steelers being the Steelers, there is bound to be a similar inheritance bequeathed to the man who follows Tomlin, with the goal of the Rooney family being that this kind of succession plan be repeated generations into the future.
  • Except with Noll, of course, because he was the man who led the Steelers franchise out of its dark ages. He was the man who famously held a team meeting shortly after being hired in January 1969 and told his new team that the goal was to win the Super Bowl but most of them weren't good enough to be around once it happened.
  • Which was the point of the jab of my smart-aleck tweet from the back of an airplane sitting on the tarmac in snowy Buffalo. "But Noll did it with Bill Austin's players."
  • Except that they didn't get it. Some did, but the majority of the responses took the tone of correcting me with things akin to the following: "No, Noll cut all those players except Walden and Russell." Sigh.
  • "A Football Life: Chuck Noll" is currently making the rounds on NFL Network, and watching it brought home another fallacy embraced by the anti-Tomlin faction: his lack of "fire." As in, "he shows no emotion on the sideline," or "he doesn't get his team fired up."
  • Watch that hour-long documentary, or better yet, read "Chuck Noll: His Life's Work" by Michael MacCambridge, and you'll see that Andy Russell said this about his former coach: "He would tell you, 'My job is to teach you how to play this game correctly. I will never give you a motivational speech. If I have to motivate you, I will fire you.'"
  • So maybe they would've ripped Noll, too. If there had been Twitter, they probably would've. And they wouldn't have gotten the joke back then, either.
  • Recently, the NFL announced which four games it was planning to export to London during the 2017 season, and none of the games will match two teams with winning 2016 records as of today, and only three of the eight teams have even a remote chance to make the upcoming playoffs that are set to start on the weekend of Jan. 7-8.
  • The games scheduled for London are: Ravens at Jaguars; Saints at Dolphins; Vikings at Browns; and Cardinals at Rams. Alas, the Steelers weren't chosen, most likely because franchises are reluctant to give up the kind of in-stadium payday that always accompanies a game against the Steelers.
  • As for a list of the teams hosting the Steelers in 2017, it's not finalized yet because the 2016 standings haven't been finalized yet. But as of teams' positioning going into this weekend's schedule of games, next year the Steelers would host Jacksonville, Tennessee, Green Bay, Minnesota, and New England; and would visit Houston, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, and Kansas City. Add in the AFC North home-and-homes, and that's your 2017 Steelers schedule, minus the dates and times of the games. With the understanding, of course, that the games against the Chiefs and Patriots could change based on the final standings.
  • Rosie Nix was a decorated defensive lineman (nose tackle) during his college days at Kent State, and he now is a favorite among Steelers fans for his work as a lead-blocking fullback for Le'Veon Bell. That brings to mind the story of Casey Hampton's brief foray into a similar NT-to-FB switch.
  • Maybe it was an homage to the Fridge, a.k.a., William Perry, but there was a time in Hampton's career when he openly lobbied the coaching staff for a shot at fullback, and during a training camp practice in 2007 he got his wish during the goal-line drill. And he soon wished he hadn't.
  • "I've been begging to do it," Hampton said after that practice on July 29, 2007, "but I don't think I want it no more."
  • Hampton didn't want it anymore because as he was leading the running back into the line of scrimmage he was stuffed in the hole by backup linebacker Clint Kriewaldt. "I'm probably going into retirement (as a fullback) after that one," Hampton said.
  • The point being that what Rosie Nix is doing in leading Le'Veon Bell through the opposing defense isn't easy, and that he's doing it after playing defensive line in college makes it even more impressive. Just ask Casey.
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