Mike Tomlin: Man's Game
"The standard is the standard."
"The standard is the standard."
"The standard is the standard."
Mike Tomlin's personal mantra gets repeated so much that it wouldn't surprise me if some of his rookies are mumbling those words in their sleep.
But it's those words that provide a glimpse as to why the Pittsburgh Steelers are the model organization of the entire NFL.
Tomlin's favorite standby saying is more than just a demand to his team that depth players filling in for injured starters still find a way to provide winning caliber performances, but it also speaks to the expectation he has for what it means to be a Pittsburgh Steeler--from Ben Roethlisberger all the way down to the last players filling out the practice squad.
Mike Tomlin demands and earns respect from his team because he is a man 24/7. We often forget that football is a child's game, and the childishness is often reflected in the coaching as well. This is a league where some coaches can't help but find one excuse after another for their team's performance instead of taking complete ownership like an adult, where a coach like Jim Harbaugh arrogantly shakes hands post-game like a cocky 12-year-old little leaguer who hasn't been humbled before, where the schoolyard-bully mentality and antics of Rex Ryan actually resonates with his even more immature players, where some coaches allow their players to scream right into their faces and apparently punch out an assistant coach at halftime just because they're not getting the ball enough in a game they were winning.
In his five seasons as a NFL head coach, you've never seen any of this from Mike Tomlin, and I don't think it's a stretch to assume you never will. He demands more than that of himself, and that's something that certainly filters down throughout his locker room as well.
The standard Tomlin speaks of isn't just about winning, it's about playing the game as a man. It's about holding yourself to a personal standard that a man should. In a way, you can understand why the Steelers are so reluctant to play younger players right off the bat. You can picture the scene at Latrobe as Mike Tomlin and Dick Lebeau flash a knowing smirk at each other whenever some cocksure college kid gets humbled for the first time by a man like Aaron Smith or James Harrison. Football may be a child's game, but the NFL -- at least championship caliber NFL football -- is a man's game, and that's what Mike Tomlin is in the business of producing, and that's the standard he holds his team to. The reason Maurkice Pouncey was uncharacteristically able to walk into the Steelers locker room and take the reins of the starting center position was because he prepared day in and day out like a seasoned professional and was a natural leader that held himself to a standard of excellence--whether that was in the weight room, in the locker room, or on the field. You can literally see the standard Pouncey holds himself to in every play, when he's consistently working harder and playing closer to the whistle than the man he's blocking. Those are the kinds of players Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers are looking for and working hard to cultivate.
From this perspective, it's not hard to see why Mike Tomlin's Steelers have dealt with adversity better than any other team in the NFL during his tenure. Where some teams would have cowered away from one of the most historically difficult schedules in NFL history in 2008, Tomlin's team gladly took the challenge on with an almost sadistic eagerness. In 2009, in a season with incredibly ill-timed turnovers, near misses, and historically awful special teams play, his team kept battling to the bitter end only to miss out on the playoffs through tiebreakers. In 2010, when most analysts were writing off his team after missing his starting QB for a month and patching together an offensive line that resembled a second-string preseason unit at times, even after three huge turnovers in the Super Bowl against a great Packers team his Steelers battled back to be just one drive away in the closing minutes to winning the game. And last Sunday, in a matchup against a long-dominant Patriots team that has had the Steelers' number for years, when crucial team leaders like James Harrison, Hines Ward, and James Farrior were unable to go, that's why you saw Chris Carter firing off the line and taking on double teams with a head full of a steam. It's why you saw Cortez Allen putting his all into every tackle to make sure his man didn't pick up any extra yards, and why LaMarr Woodley continued to play out of his mind to pick up the slack. It's why you saw Larry Foote and Ryan Clark not giving up that extra couple of inches at the goal line even though it seemed like it was a given the Patriots were going to get six, and why Rashard Mendenhall was exploding into each hole like he was shot out of a cannon and refusing to go down at first contact unlike an all-world talent like Chris Johnson selected just one pick after him.
The standard is the standard.
Tomlin not only demands respect, but he gives it as well. Some bemoan the fact that a guy like Aaron Smith was not only brought back for one last ride as a starter but was placed on IR and not released to free up precious salary cap space. But it's moves like that, and moves like saving a roster spot for Smith last year to possibly play in the Super Bowl if it came to it, that helps the Steelers re-sign phenomenal players like Ike Taylor and LaMarr Woodley for well below market value deals. It's why the Steelers are able to keep developing a winning culture that players want to spend their whole careers being a part of. It's why they're able to quickly overcome normal locker room hiccups that every NFL team goes through at some point.
This coming Sunday's game represents the ultimate dichotomy of coaching styles between John Harbaugh and Mike Tomlin. Harbaugh is a child coaching children. He placates their excuse making by feeding into it after every loss or poor performance. When his team essentially lost the division to the Steelers last year, he went onto local sports talk radio and told angry fans "to go find another team to cheer for."
Mike Tomlin will have none of that. Probably my most memorable Tomlin moment came just minutes after losing the Super Bowl last season. After coming so close to a championship and falling short in the biggest game in the world, with thoughts and emotions going through his head that no coach really knows how to prepare for, he stood outside his locker room with his held head high and a firm handshake awaiting every single player on that team. They say your true character is only revealed in your weakest moments, and we saw Tomlin's that day. The type of character we saw? Championship caliber, regardless of what was on the scoreboard.
It's that same sort of character that has spread throughout the entire Steelers locker room since Tomlin took over. It's that same sort of character that assures me that regardless of the final score next Sunday that the Steelers are going to have a hell of a lot more in store for the Ravens than they did on opening weekend. It's that same sort of character that lets me know when all the chips are on the table that Tomlin's squad will be ready to do more than the Ravens are.
And why is that?
Because that's the standard Mike Tomlin has set.