The best of Mike Tomlin: Steelers coach navigates season of adversity

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PITTSBURGH -- For a brief moment, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin allowed himself to break from the intense focus he tries to maintain during football season.

After starting 0-3, the Steelers had just won their fourth game in five starts over the Indianapolis Colts. Tomlin stood behind the podium at Heinz Field and reflected.

“It is good to be .500 at the turn like we talked about early in the week, given where we have come from,” Tomlin said Sunday. "It’s going to still be a while. We will work forever trying to get that September stench off of us, but that is life in this thing, and I appreciate the effort and fight. It is good to be sitting at 4-4. I never thought I would hear myself say that.”

Although Tomlin doesn't often ruminate on the big picture at the midway point of a season, his players say he deserves credit for righting a ship that could have veered seriously off course. In navigating the locker room through the offseason Antonio Brown drama, the Week 2 Ben Roethlisberger injury and the poor start, Tomlin is in the midst of one of his best coaching jobs.

“Since I’ve been here, this is the best of Mike Tomlin,” offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva said. “From a leadership standpoint, from an ability to motivate his players and to get the best out of the current circumstances. Awesome.

“I’m sure that he’s going to look back at this year and look fondly at some of the lessons that we’ve all learned because obviously it’s been a different season. It’s one that we all are struggling to write and hopefully finish on a good note.”

The Steelers traded Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell left in free agency during an eventful offseason. That’s when Villanueva first recognized that Tomlin, a man who thrives in adversity, was doing some of his best leadership work.

“We did not have an easy offseason,” Villanueva said. "The way we finished last year was very challenging. It’s a new era. Connectivity is making things a lot more complicated in a lot of ways. It’s making things harder for athletes. It’s making things harder for the cohesion of the team. He’s had to step up in a big way to control the narratives that are going around a locker room to make sure that everybody is singularly focused on the task. That is a very, very difficult job. Not just because of the events that have happened, but just the fact that you’re seeing the Steelers logo on television 24/7.”

From there, it got more and more chaotic. There was the three-game losing streak to start the season that included the loss of Roethlisberger. Then came the breaking in of two first-time starting quarterbacks.

Through it all, Tomlin remained the organization’s steadfast rock. That’s what the locker room needed him to be.

“He hurts for us,” tight end Vance McDonald said. “He hurts for the fact that we set an expectation and obviously it didn’t meet our goal. He hurts for the fact that we’ve had injuries at certain positions and it puts strain and a lot of stress on a lot of guys at different spots. At the end of the day, he points out the fact that the standard is the standard. He doesn’t expect anything else regardless of who’s playing where. It’s hard.

“I guarantee it’s hard for him to do, but the fact is he does it every day and there’s never any faltering. It’s still consistent. As a player, it’s easy to play for.”

It’s not that Tomlin is drastically changing how he leads. He has made subtle changes to motivate his players and adjust to their needs. Since returning from the bye, Tomlin has ended practices early, sometimes by nearly half an hour. The shortened, non-padded practices have gone a long way to heal players.

After beating the Colts on Sunday, Tomlin spread the word in the locker room: the team would celebrate "Victory Monday." An extra day off to reward the team for its win -- something uncommon so early in the season. Upon hearing the news, the players cheered as loudly as they did when they entered the locker room after the win.

“It’s so big for us, for our bodies,” McDonald said. “It’s something that will raise morale, as petty and silly as that sounds. This is our job, but when we get little nuggets like that at the front end of a day, it really makes guys work that much harder. It’s a reward for hard work. It’s trust from him to us, recognizing that we are a veteran group and we can handle that.”

Even as his players took a couple of moments to reflect on the job Tomlin has done, the coach’s moment of contemplation didn’t last. By Tuesday afternoon, it was back to business.

“I don’t look at it from a big-picture perspective,” Tomlin said about how the season had challenged him. “I’m just trying to meet the challenges week in and week out. At the turn, for a moment after that game, I paused just to take a look at where we were after eight games, but I immediately backed into my singular focus, as I expect our football team to be. We’ve got a good team coming in here this week off of a bye (the Los Angeles Rams). We’ve got to keep the train rolling, and so we’re focused on that.”