When you ask Mike Tomlin what constitutes good coaching, he says, "Providing your guys with what they need to be successful in any and all circumstances. It's just that. It's not about ideas. It's not about being on the cutting edge schematically. It's making sure your guys are in the frame of mind and have the ability to perform and perform at a high level. Individually and collectively."
An NFL season is a long one, especially so for the teams that begin with the expectation of competing for a championship, which the Steelers will do on Sunday, Feb. 6 in Cowboys Stadium. Come kickoff of Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers will have been at this for six full months, and that only encompasses the pretty much seven days a week existence they have lived since the opening of training camp.
That's a long grind, and that is the primary factor in what has come to be known as the "rookie wall." An NFL rookie often is slow to get up to speed – both mentally and physically – for the start of his first season, but then there's also the chance for him to have little left in either tank come Christmas.
In some cases that might be inevitable, but in others, maybe it can be avoided. Eight rookies are on the 53-man roster the Steelers will take to Dallas for this Super Bowl, and five of them will be expected to perform in their normal roles, any of which could turn out to be critical in a game where it's winner-take-all.
Mike Tomlin is slow to anoint. He believes this is a show-me business, and if whomever shows it enough times, well, then the anointing will take care of itself from within the locker room. And along the way, an accountability factor is injected where rookies learn that there will be an expectation for them to provide a winning performance, and that when the games get bigger their level of preparation for them and then their performances in them have to rise as well.
And so the receiver who made a spectacular catch to set up the winning touchdown vs. the Ravens in the Divisional Round and then a sweet reception to convert a third-and-6 to ice the win last Sunday over the Jets is Antonio Brown, a sixth-round rookie who was forced to compete weekly for a spot on the game day roster, a competition he wasn't winning consistently until December. "Two dogs, one bone" was Tomlin's description of Brown vs. Emmanuel Sanders, and that competition helped make both deserving to be on the field in the important games played in late January.
"That's pretty funny isn't it, a third-and-6 to win the AFC Championship game for a rookie from Central Michigan," said Tomlin. "Those (rookie receivers) have proven that they belong for the better part of the second half of the season. It was awesome, and I am happy for him."
Tomlin's way forced all of the rookies to keep their edge through this long season, and he did that by keeping practices mandatory and competitive for them. The tempo set by the head coach for his practice sessions gradually has to make concessions to the reality of helping guys maintain their bodies over the course of the regular season.
But while it might be OK for Troy Polamalu to rest on Wednesdays and Thursdays and take the practice field only on Fridays, it wasn't OK for the younger, still developing guys.
Jason Worilds, for example, had to fight through some bumps and bruises and was inactive for two games as a result. Tomlin wasn't about to commit a game day roster spot to a rookie who hadn't gotten enough on-field practice. Knowing that they had to earn the right to play every week had to help keep the rookies on their details throughout the preparation process, which then allowed them to have a better chance at contributing to the team on Sunday.
"My job continually changes. It really does, to meet the needs of the moment," said Tomlin. "The moments are heightened and change in playoff football, and I have to be understanding of that and light on my feet. Different guys, individually and collectively, deal with the stress or the urgencies of single-elimination football differently. I've got to have a pulse of individuals and of the group to provide them with what they need to do the job in the midst of all that.
"Some of it's innate. Some of it's also learned over time. But many of the things, particularly when you're talking about bringing out the best in people individually, is innate."
During the Steelers' stay in Dallas, the Associated Press will announce the winners of its cache of awards, and one of them will go to a man voted NFL Coach of the Year. Whoever it is won't have done a better job than Mike Tomlin.
Bob Labriola, a Pittsburgh native, has been editor of Steelers Digest since its inception in 1988. To subscribe, call 1-800-334-4005, or visit: http://www.steelers.com/news/digest.html