No-nonsense Tomlin the 'perfect' fit in Pittsburgh

Back in late September, Pittsburgh had its game that week against Tennessee postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the Titans. It altered the Steelers’ game plans, cancelled a well-timed midseason bye and meant Pittsburgh would finish the season with a grueling 13 consecutive weeks of play.

“We do not care,” head coach Mike Tomlin barked in response.

And so that was that. No controversy. No complaints. No embracing the victim.

We. Do. Not. Care.

It has become something of a rallying cry in Pittsburgh, the quote imprinted on the front of T-shirts. The mindset was nothing new.

Tomlin didn’t care. Tomlin never cares.

Line them up and play the game, no excuses, no nonsense and this year at least, no losses. The Steelers are 10-0, including a 27-24 rescheduled victory over the Titans.

This is Tomlin’s 14th year as the head coach of the Steelers. He has never had a losing season. He has won one Super Bowl (following the 2008 season) and been to another (a loss to Green Bay in 2010). He’s 48, an age when a lot of head coaches get their first shot, so he’s presumably just entering his prime.

Despite longevity and consistent success with a storied franchise, and despite a perfect record this year heading into Thursday night’s clash with rival Baltimore, Mike Tomlin is somehow the most underrated coach in the NFL.

Mike Tomlin has his Pittsburgh Steelers at 10-0 despite postponed games and other challenges. No excuses. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Mike Tomlin has his Pittsburgh Steelers at 10-0 despite postponed games and other challenges. No excuses. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

You could go back to his arrival, a complete stunner of a hire. Tomlin, an African American, is the embodiment of the Rooney Rule, the NFL policy championed by the Steelers’ Dan Rooney to encourage/force franchises to interview minority coaching candidates.

In January of 2007, Tomlin had almost no pedigree. He was a former wide receiver at William & Mary, had been coaching in the league six years and had just one season of defensive coordinator experience with Minnesota.

So how did the Steelers decide to hand over the keys to a 34-year-old with no history with the franchise?

They talked with him.

“He wants to play the kind of football the Pittsburgh Steelers want to play,” Art Rooney II said at the time.

The move was inspired. Tomlin is 143-74-1 as a head coach. Still, too much of his earlier success was often minimized as the work of inheriting a powerhouse roster, getting a young franchise quarterback (Ben Roethliesberger) and/or the work of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a holdover from the staff of Bill Cowher.

You can’t fake it for 14 years though. When the Steelers are good, they are good. When they are bad, they are at least respectable. They almost always come to play. Tomlin has managed multiple roster flips, the wild career and personal swings of Roethlisberger and the drama of Antonio Brown. He even managed to go 3-3 with Duck Hodges as the starting QB.

LeBeau was an undeniable giant of a defensive coach. He also left the team in 2014. Here in 2020, Pittsburgh’s defense has yielded the fewest points in the league (17.4 per game).

Tomlin likely doesn’t care about stats, or the rankings or the credit. He’s human, of course, although he rarely shows much of that publicly. He isn’t much for interviews or profiles or television commercials. He is known for sputtering out short, gruff motivational sayings, but that seems more like a way to get through a news conference than an effort to inspire the world.

“We’re not in the business of making excuses.”

“Excuses are tools of the incompetent.”

“The standard is the standard.”

He says he sticks with an economy of words because he knows most people are poor listeners. In other words, by trying to get to the point, he channels his inner Winston Churchill and gets to the point.

A lot of this is similar to Bill Belichick up in Foxborough, who seems to shadow over every coach in the league, including Tomlin. If everyone is compared to Belichick, then everyone comes up short. He has won more, won more consistently and cornered the market on coach-speak as performance art.

He even beat Tomlin in the AFC championship game following the 2016 season with a juggernaut Patriots club that would win the Super Bowl with a 17-2 record. The Steelers, who were on a nine-game win streak, were likely the second-best team in the league that season. It was the best team Tomlin had since the Super Bowl appearances, at least until now.

That’s the NFL though, a zero-sum game. Tomlin knows it. It’s what drives him, focuses him, gets him to care nothing about the 10 victories behind him but the potential nine more to come, starting this week.

Maybe he needs another Super Bowl to be truly appreciated, although that likely means getting past Patrick Mahomes, the young AFC king who arrived just as the old one (Tom Brady) was leaving.

If so, then so be it — the standard is the standard.

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