Tomlin, Steelers a perfect match


To him, it's no big deal. Nothing to celebrate. In fact, the task of even getting Mike Tomlin to talk about the contract extension he signed today, at least in an expansive manner, has a degree of difficulty falling somewhere between pulling teeth and impossible. But the fact the Steelers and their coach executed a two-year extension through the 2018 season, and did so without any leaks during the negotiation process, makes a statement.

From Steelers President Art Rooney II, it's an acknowledgement of Tomlin's success at problem-solving, because at the core of being a successful head coach is an ability to solve problems. From Tomlin, it's an acceptance of the way the Steelers do business, because working for the Pittsburgh Steelers is different. And because it all happened under the radar is just one of the reasons they belong together.

Photographs of Coach Mike Tomlin

Hired in 2007 following a rather meteoric rise through the list of candidates after his first interview, Tomlin has been faced with a series of problems that always didn't appear on the surface to be problems and yet could've morphed into big problems if he hadn't handled them well.

Start with one of the first situations he encountered, back in early January 2007: What to do about the defense he was to inherit, a 3-4 zone-blitz scheme coordinated by Dick LeBeau?

3-4 VS. 4-3
Brought to the professional ranks by Tony Dungy in 2001 and schooled in the art of NFL defense by Monte Kiffin, Tomlin began as a young secondary coach being fed a steady diet of the Tampa-2. Then hired by Brad Childress to coordinate the Minnesota Vikings defense in 2006, Tomlin's unit there also was a base 4-3. That was his hands-on experience when the Steelers first contacted him about the job opened by Bill Cowher's resignation.

Tomlin came to the Steelers and kept the defense that was in place. The entire defensive coaching staff was retained, with LeBeau firmly in charge of the unit's direction and approach, and the personnel moves made – most notably the insertion of James Harrison into the starting lineup and using the top two draft picks on Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley – were ones designed to make the defense better at doing what it had been doing before Tomlin's arrival. And before dismissing this move as the ultimate no-brainer, understand that other finalists for the Steelers job weren't going to retain LeBeau or the scheme.

"To me, that's all ego-driven when people come in and believe they have to put their stamp on things. Why would you fix something that's not broken?" said Tomlin some time later. "That's just me. I'm more interested in winning than anything else, and that allows us to win. We have great players, we have a great system, we have great coaches. That decision was very easy for me. The story doesn't have to be me, what I do. The story has to be what we do, and what we're capable of doing as a team."

There have been but three coaches at the helm for the Steelers since 1969, and each man came to be known for one of the lessons he always taught. Chuck Noll's "whatever it takes" let everyone know there now was the singular commitment to winning that had been lacking during the franchise's first 36 seasons. Bill Cowher's "re-establish the mind-set" was a nod to his belief that a core component of winning football was accepting the notion it first and foremost is a physical, hard-hitting sport. For Tomlin, it's "the standard is the standard."

The playing field is much more level in today's NFL, with fewer teams consistently behind the curve in personnel evaluation serving to create rampant parity. In a league where player-for-player trades are difficult because schemes are different, where there's a salary cap, where there's almost a 50 percent change in playoff participants from one season to the next, an acceptance that injuries are inevitable and then developing the mind-set to compensate for them is a critical component of winning football in the 2010s.

"I don't convince them, the guys who step up and play for the guys who go down convince them," Tomlin has explained. "There are some guys who have been around this football team since I've been here and heard me say that and have had tangible evidence of that. The more often that happens, the more they see guys are capable of stepping up and delivering and delivering big, it adds value to those words.

"And it's not something I'm trying to convince them of. It's something I believe in. These guys are professional athletes, and in the big scheme of things they're in the minute upper percentile of people who do what it is that they do. So what difference does it make if a guy is a front-line guy or a starter-in-waiting. They're all capable men, capable of playing above the line and providing winning ball for us. That's something we talk about openly. Everyone wants a disclaimer. Everyone wants to grade on the curve. We don't live in that world. That's one of the things about sport in general that I love. It's black-and-white, either you do it or you don't. You're successful or you're not. You win or you lose. I try to keep it as close to that as I can in everything that we do."

A criticism sometimes leveled at Tomlin is that he won Super Bowl XLIII with players he inherited, but if you're in the football business isn't that actually praiseworthy? A coach came to a team that had assembled a quality batch of talent, including a quarterback on a path to greatness, and he largely stayed the course while making some complementary improvements to what was in place. In his second year, there was a parade in Downtown Pittsburgh in February, and by the end of his fourth they had won a second AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field.

It was a nice run, a run that's often underappreciated, but thankfully not by the guy signing Tomlin's checks. Since Super Bowl XLV, the Steelers have transitioned from a team that had gotten old and stale on defense – there were seven thirtysomething starters in 2011 and six in 2012 – to one where William Gay is the only starter on defense to have seen a 30th birthday. There was a lot of problem-solving associated with re-making a veteran roster that had experienced a lot of success together, and the Steelers completed the four-year transition without a single losing season while winning a division championship in 2014. Looking ahead, their prospects for 2015 seem bright if for no other reason than their quarterback has covered a lot of ground on that path to greatness he was traveling back in 2007.

Tomlin deserves credit for the team remaining competitive through a transition that included a dozen significant players having their careers here end along with the normal roster turnover every NFL team experiences annually. And he deserves credit as well for working within the Steelers' framework to get through that phase.

The Steelers' framework is one where nobody gets to make every football decision every time. Through the hirings and the firings, the drafting, when and if to sign players to extensions, a Steelers head coach is not a dictator. Chuck Noll wasn't. Bill Cowher wasn't. Mike Tomlin isn't, and by accepting the Steelers' framework he proves he truly embraces the team-first philosophy at the root of a 45-season run of success that has included more wins (448) and more division championships (20) than any other NFL franchise since the 1970 merger. When Tomlin had said, "The story doesn't have to be me, what I do. The story has to be what we do, and what we're capable of doing as a team," he meant it.

Over the past few years, there had to be changes. Some of them difficult. Some involving people who had contributed a lot to the franchise, people who have their names inscribed on a couple of those six Lombardis. Those are examples of organizational decisions, and with the Steelers those result after input is sought and considered. But also with the Steelers comes the expectation that after a decision is reached, then everybody rows the boat in one direction.

That's the way the Steelers do business today, and Tomlin is perfect as their head coach because he understands that being in charge isn't as important as being supported.

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