Tomlin: We're just a much better team now

Have the script set to one of those NFL Films soundtracks, let Liev Schreiber do the voice-over, and you might really have something. It would be the story of a team made up of equal parts not-quite-there-yet young players and used-to-be veterans, all getting off to an awful start, only to find their path in the immediate aftermath of hitting rock bottom and responding with a streak that turns around their season, restores the franchise's reputation, and saves everybody's jobs.

If only it were true. Fact is, the story of the turnaround of the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers from punch line to the opponent everybody would rather avoid is much more mundane. Much more like real life, where people get up every day and go to work. Nothing magical, nothing mystical. Perspiration over inspiration.

"It doesn't have anything to do with focus. We're just a much better team than we were at the early portions of the season," said Coach Mike Tomlin in the final days of their 2013. "It's just truth. Not only in terms of who we're using, but the people we're using have improved. We have a lot of young guys who are much better players now than they were at the beginning of the year. And we also have guys playing now who weren't playing at the beginning of the year."

At the beginning of the year, the joke always seemed to be on the Steelers. A comedy of errors, some slap-stick mixed in, translated into an 0-4 start. A couple of wins followed, including one over a hated rival, but when those minor advances were erased by a couple of uniquely humiliating defeats, it just seemed to reinforce their ineptitude. Then, an apparent epiphany. Must have been an epiphany, because the rebound began almost immediately, and the climb to playoff contender was as steady as it gets in professional athletics.

Publicly they talked about renewing their focus, about making a commitment to each other, about being accountable, about taking things one game at a time. Listen closely, and you can hear the strains of that NFL Films music building to a crescendo. Either that, or it's Tomlin laughing.

"That (one game at a time approach is) something that stops a bad problem from becoming worse," said Tomlin. "The No. 1 key to getting out of a hole is to stop digging, and I believe that's what the singular focus allowed us to do. To stop digging. Not to worry about what we had done to get ourselves into the position we were in, but to look singularly forward at the challenge that's in front of us. That's what I'm talking about when I talk about having the ability to focus on this week's challenge."

Tomlin isn't sentimental, especially when it comes to his profession. There is work, and results. Bottom line, all the way. He didn't try to pull at heart-strings when his team was 2-6, and he's amused when others try it to explain the 6-2 second half that had the Steelers finish as a team nobody really wanted to play next week.

"Win, lose, or draw, often times you'll miss tomorrow worrying about yesterday," said Tomlin. "That happens a lot, not only in this league, but in sport in general. We had a group that was able to move past some of our shortcomings and some of our mistakes and unsuccessful ventures early in the season and focus on the next challenge."

In the immediate aftermath of the Steelers' win over the Browns, it was simple to identify areas of improvement. Some could be quantified by statistics: sacks recorded vs. sacks allowed, turnover ratio, red zone efficiency. But others were less numerical: the ability to take control of a game early; making plays down the stretch to finish things; to respond to whatever negativity might come during a particular game.

Through it all, Tomlin implored his players to work today in order to improve tomorrow, without worrying about yesterday. They improved, so therefore the work was successful. Simple.

"I never thought they weren't (listening), but it's really two different discussions. I don't want to blend one with the other," said Tomlin. "Us putting together enough successful plays to win football games and that approach are two different things. You can never put together enough plays to win football games if you're toting last week's bags, or the last month's bags. That's what that approach is about. They're related, and they're similar, but they're not the same discussion. But even with that approach, if we didn't improve, we weren't going to win. We improved. That's the key ingredient to it all."

The Steelers didn't have quite enough to make the playoffs, though, and like all NFL teams they will experience some change over the upcoming offseason. They won't be able to carry over their 6-2 into 2014, but how they attained that 6-2 is another matter. And should they forget, Tomlin will be there to refresh their memories.

"You have to continually teach and encourage that type of environment and that type of approach," said Tomlin. "It probably runs counter-culture to sport. It definitely runs counter-culture to our society, that ability to block out peripheral things and focus on the back-and-white, the meat of the things, the things that we can control. It's something we continually talk about and a culture we try to foster."

And what they accomplished in 2013 is those who return to them next season will understand how that works.

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