PITTSBURGH — After working the halls of a national coaches convention, Mike Tomlin grabbed a chair. Legendary coach Bobby Bowden was speaking, and Tomlin, then a young position coach in the college ranks, sought wisdom to take back to his meeting rooms.
Tomlin’s older brother was alongside him as Bowden delivered the double-take message to the crowd of 20-somethings about two decades ago.
“He said, ‘I treat players according to how fast they are,'” Ed Tomlin said. “We kind of laughed at how honest that was.”
Mike Tomlin has the Super Bowl cachet to headline those conventions now. He also is known to be just as honest about his treatment of players, which only deepens the intrigue for his crucial 13th season with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Despite racking up 125 regular-season wins since 2007, second to the New England Patriots‘ Bill Belichick among active coaches during that span, Tomlin faced scrutiny last season for the Steelers’ late collapse, their propensity for making headlines and a rocky relationship with former receiver Antonio Brown, who many former teammates believe received star treatment in Pittsburgh.
Tomlin remained unapologetically himself through that storm, unmoved by a players’ coach label or what he called chatter. He publicly stated he treats everyone fairly but not exactly the same.
He is not concerned with being misunderstood. Winning rises above that, which is why Tomlin considers himself “ready for battle” in 2019.
“I shaped my reputation in this business and this outlook in this business being singularly focused on the task at hand,” Tomlin told ESPN in a sit-down interview from his hometown of Hampton, Virginia, where he appeared at a fundraiser for the Hampton Roads Youth Foundation. “So I’d be kidding you if I told you I had a certain edge because of what happened in 2018. I just have a certain edge because I better have a certain edge. This business that I’m in dictates that I better have a certain edge, and I embrace that element of it.”
The organization prefers stability at the top, having famously employed just three head coaches since 1969. What Tomlin does during the Steelers’ 2019 campaign will strengthen the organization’s faith in him or test its limits.
With Brown and Le’Veon Bell in new uniforms and the Steelers no longer a trendy Super Bowl pick, those who know Tomlin believe he is at his best when doubted.
His players are eager to find out.
“Every team except one team in the NFL would love to have him,” said Steelers linebacker Anthony Chickillo, making the obvious nod to the New England Patriots, who have won six Super Bowls with Belichick. “His résumé speaks for itself. That’s what I want out of a coach.”
Veteran guard Ramon Foster takes that analogy a step further.
“I’m sure if you ask all 1,200 players in this league which one [of the coaches] they’d rather play for, he’s at the top of the list,” said Foster, a 10-year starter on Pittsburgh’s offensive line.
The 2016 Steelers were 4-5, and Arthur Moats saw a lack of discipline in his team.
That’s when Tomlin set a tone with enforcement, from player fines for tardiness to policing toes on the line during sprints. Pittsburgh won seven straight to secure a playoff berth.
“The team responded and we went on a run,” said Moats, a Steelers linebacker from 2014 to 2017. “He can do that if he needs to. No matter the adversity he’s faced, he’s always found a way to motivate the guys, to create a plan that works, to make an adjustment.
“Now, with the way things played out with AB, he can make sure to avoid those reoccurrences.”
Those who have called Tomlin too friendly with players had a convenient talking point with Brown, who forced a trade after missing multiple work days in 2018. The perception of a star player leaving fuels those critics. Former Steelers such as James Harrison have claimed Tomlin needs to command more from his locker room, citing Belichick’s disciplinary style resonating in New England.
Player-coach dynamics are complex, of course. Micromanaging fines or discipline can take time away from preparing to win games, Moats said, making a self-policing locker room crucial.
Tomlin prefers to focus on acquiring “quality men who happen to be quality players,” he said. “It starts there.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy hired Tomlin while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2001.
“When you win, that’s considered a strength. When you lose, that can be the reason you’re losing. It comes back to winning. I don’t think Mike is going to change. That’s not who he is,” Dungy said of Tomlin’s style. “He’s not the type to babysit with a lot of rules. He’ll expect players to be the driving force and set the tone. He’s a proven leader and proven winner.”
Where Tomlin might showcase the most discipline is in one-on-one settings. Tomlin is “not a bulls—-er” with players, Chickillo said, and many have a personalized story to illustrate as much. Tomlin has challenged running backs — from Bell to DeAngelo Williams and James Conner — to lose weight to maximize results. All of them did, then produced on the field.
Former Steelers safety Ryan Clark remembers Tomlin once telling him more disciplined play would elevate his career. Clark eventually became a team captain.
Foster calls Tomlin “that uncle you just don’t want to piss off.”
“You know you can be who you want to be, but if you step out of line … he can be a real problem if you take him down that lane,” Foster said. “Guys understand what we have to do because of the amount of respect we have for him and how he allows us to be men.”
That’s why the coach’s brother laughs at the notion that Tomlin is too easy on players.
“Nobody is treated the same, but he treats people as individuals,” said Ed Tomlin, who played football at Maryland. “That’s what makes him a great coach. People need someone in their lives to tell them the truth. I don’t know why that’s perceived as a negative thing. It’s a deed-based business. These are grown men. That [hard discipline] doesn’t fly anymore. He’s a new-age coach who doesn’t rule by fear.”
Tomlin will enforce rules when necessary, and prioritizing change — even if subtle — can usher the Steelers past a bitter season.
Tomlin is on record as being open to that — “We all need to look in the mirror,” he said at the NFL owners meetings in March — but his exact plan is unclear. One tangible move is hiring defensive assistant Teryl Austin, who will coach from the booth and help Tomlin with replay challenges on game days. The decision seems overdue for a head coach who has lost his past 10 challenges.
While Tomlin might interact differently with Ben Roethlisberger as opposed to a special-teamer, certain guidelines should be universally applied for Tomlin to maximize results with this team, Moats said.
“You have to have certain things in place where, no matter what, you’re always going to stand on,” Moats said. “When we talk about fines, if you fine guys for being late, it shouldn’t matter who it is. Certain things have to hold more weight. Whatever he decides on, it will be, ‘No matter who it is, I have to do this.'”
The Steelers can hope the losses of Brown and Bell eliminate distractions and employ an addition-by-subtraction approach. Perhaps that is naive, considering their elite talents. But Tomlin might as well have been talking directly to Conner and receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster when he told the media he has two Pro Bowlers to replace the departed stars; the coach is emboldening them to take massive leaps in Year 3.
Roethlisberger is coming off a healthy season with a league-high 5,129 yards on 675 passing attempts. Despite taking shots publicly from former teammates over leadership concerns, Roethlisberger will be the team’s central figure in 2019; he signed a three-year contract this offseason. Tomlin has worked hard to jell with Roethlisberger, who at the end of last season cited a friendship with his head coach.
None of that legwork matters much without results.
“I acknowledge that there are some significant changes, but talking about it is not going to dictate the outcome,” Tomlin said about the 2019 season outlook. “You won’t hear a lot of bold predictions from us. That is not our style; that is not appropriate. We know that we are judged based on performance anyway.”
Now, players seem ready to talk for Tomlin.
“Personally, I don’t think he needs to motivate us,” Chickillo said. “We’re already plenty motivated. Not many are believing in us right now.”
Defense will drive the performance. Redirecting Tomlin’s legacy in Pittsburgh will require improvement from a unit that mixes flashes of brilliance with uneven play. The Steelers have struggled drafting cornerbacks. Not one of their five corners selected in the 2015-17 drafts are projected to start in 2019. The release of safety Morgan Burnett is a reminder that the Steelers’ heavily used dime package still needs tweaking.
With his weighty influence on that side of the ball, Tomlin often urges his defense to “trim the fat” — that is, run a select number of plays cleanly rather than overload with superfluous options. But the defense run by Tomlin and coordinator Keith Butler can be difficult for young defensive backs, in part because of the pre- and post-snap reads. A defensive back might have three reads once the play starts.
Helping a rebuilt secondary to play smart but free football will be crucial.
“One thing he probably doesn’t get enough credit for is his football mind,” Moats said of Tomlin. “The things he sees and is able to communicate, it doesn’t always work or we can’t execute at that level of detail, but the tendencies he’s able to pick up on is what makes him a special coach. Within that, he’s coaching at a doctorate level, and sometimes that can be a lot for young players. All 11 players getting it right on Sundays is the challenge.”
And a challenge Dungy expects Tomlin to meet and exceed.
Dungy hasn’t spoken to Tomlin recently, but Dungy has a go-to line for him whenever he does: “You’ve got great instincts, so trust them.”
A Steelers defensive back in the late 1970s, Dungy believes the organization will support the coach.
“Things generally tend to work out when you’re true to yourself,” Dungy said. “Like Chuck Noll always said, ‘You don’t leave the game plan.'”