LATROBE, Pa. – During his four previous seasons as the Steelers coach, Mike Tomlin has dealt with a lot of different things at training camp. In 2007, he was the rookie coach taking over a team of veteran players used to doing things a certain way for their entire professional careers. In 2008, he was a coach who maybe had to admit he needed to lighten up a bit from the previous summer. In 2009, he was a coach trying to whip a team into shape to defend the championship it had won just months earlier. And in 2010, he was the coach who had to figure out a way to prepare a team to open a season without its starting quarterback while also preparing that starting quarterback.
If it's true that experience is the best teacher, well, Mike Tomlin finds himself in uncharted territory once again, because nobody has a good idea of what to expect this summer.
With an entire offseason of minicamps, OTAs, learning and getting-to-know-you wiped out by the lockout, the Steelers will be forced to cram months of work into a few weeks, because what has not changed is this: their regular season will begin on Sunday, Sept. 11 in Baltimore against the Ravens.
With the Steelers due to report to Saint Vincent College today, Mike Tomlin took some time to talk about the challenges facing these Steelers during this training camp.
Q. When Art Rooney II spoke to the media on Monday, he used the word "relieved." How would you describe your emotions about the lockout being over and training camp set to start?
A. My word would be "excitement." I love football, I love the process of team building, I love training camp. I'm glad those things are underway.
Q. The process of the team-building is going to be a unique one this year because you haven't seen these players in months. Do you have to do things differently in order to get what you need from this training camp?
A. Absolutely. We have to be more thoughtful about creating opportunities for people to show what they're capable of than we were under normal circumstances, quite frankly, because time is a bigger factor under these circumstances. The "get to know" element that naturally happens over the course of an offseason for some of the new guys is missing – and let's face it, teaching and coaching does not happen in a vacuum. A lot of the things about getting good football out of people is knowing them, getting to know them and understanding them. That makes this increasingly difficult. I acknowledge all of those things because I understand it's going to be a factor. I'm not complaining about those things because they're things everybody has to deal with. So from that standpoint we have the same opportunities that others have, but I do acknowledge that it's new and different and unique, and so we have to deal with it in new and different and unique fashions.
Q. Can you make a plan and follow a plan, or does that go out the window because it's never had to be done like this before?
A. It is a plan. But a better word would be priority. Things that need to get done and prioritizing them and knocking them down based on priority with the understanding that some of the things may not get dealt with in the manner or fashion and the detail you're comfortable with, under the circumstances. So it is plan-oriented, but within the plan you have to prioritize because we acknowledge these unique circumstances are going to create situations where some things may not get addressed, or may not get addressed to a degree you're comfortable with.
Q. What are the priorities, especially early in camp?
A. For us, getting to know the players we don't know. Draft picks, the newly signed guys. Getting to know them not only in terms of what they're capable of from a football standpoint and how they learn the things of that nature, but learning who they are. Where they come from. Their backgrounds. The things that could become a factor in them doing the things we'll need them to do. That is a priority, as is getting a sense of where our veteran players are from a conditioning standpoint, a football conditioning standpoint. That's an element of this thing, because we all go to camp with the emphasis on moving forward and preparing ourselves for the season, but we don't want to take steps backward along the way. Not acknowledging that people may come into camp at different levels of conditioning is an element that could cause us to take a step backwards. Those are the chief elements. The guys we know – how ready are they to proceed. The guys we don't know – gathering the necessary information so we can push them through this process as seamlessly as we can.
Q. What are reasonable expectations to have for the guys you know, as well as the guys you don't?
A. My goal when I check into training camp is almost the same every year – to leave as a unified, hardened team that's ready to compete for a world championship. I like that approach and definition, because it fits this situation perfectly. We may not leave camp with all of the things checked off similar to the way we've done it in the past, but relative to the people we compete against, we need to leave camp as a unified, hardened team ready to pursue a world championship. I still think from that standpoint that everything we want to get done in camp is reachable or attainable.
Q. The Steelers, as usual, are going away for training camp, while other teams have decided under these circumstances to hold their camps at home. Why are you in favor of going away to camp?
A. There are things that occur in a training camp setting that build chemistry and cohesion that you can't necessarily measure. Those things are usually done in contained environments. The ability to spend time together and get close and get to know one another that occur in training camp settings don't always occur when you're not in a training camp setting. People do their work that's in front of them for the day and then they can go their separate ways. In a training camp setting when they're in a contained environment, you do get a chance to build on the art of football – the things that are involved in team-building from a chemistry and cohesion standpoint.
Q. The rookies are going to be seeing the playbook for the first time. Can you afford to wait for them to learn and catch up to where the other players are?
A. This train is moving, because we have a date and that date is Sept. 11. That's when we start playing regular season football, and we need to push forward to that date. The young guys who are suited and booted that day are going to be the ones who showed us they're capable of helping us win. There is a unique pressure on the young guys in terms of stepping up and being able to contribute. But that's going to be happening all over the NFL.
Q. What do you think of the new practice rules, primarily the one prohibiting two-a-days?
A. It's an adjustment. These are unique circumstances, and we'll all probably feel more comfortable with the circumstances next year as we move forward having had ample time to plan. I think we're all going to move forward this year with a level of discomfort regarding those things. We're in uncharted territory, and we haven't had a lot of time to ponder the possibilities.