Pittsburgh Steelers Fourth Quarter Report, Part 2
By Ivan Cole
You can read the first portion of this report here.
Let’s get right to it…
What criteria would you apply to judging a successful, even great coach? Let
me suggest a few categories.
The most fundamental and straightforward metric of all. At the professional level coaches that do not win do not survive. Tomlin has just completed his 11th season as head coach. He has yet to have a losing season. He is one victory shy of Don Shula at a similar point in his career. He is also in the conversation with other Hall of Fame-caliber coaches such as John Madden and even Vince Lombardi in terms of this metric. This was his best season in terms of record.
What undercuts especially successful coaches over time is an unwillingness to adapt to the evolution of the game. This is understandable given that in most cases the foundation for success has often been a consistent, even stubborn adherence to certain fundamental methods. But, citing just one of many potential examples, as noted in the last section, there was a time when the Steelers could thrive relying solely on draft picks and UDFAs. Pittsburgh is now mastering a blended strategy of draftees/udfa, limited mid-to-upper level free agents and some developmental projects.
But the most dramatic change is on the field. Gone is the Neanderthal, but brutally efficient offense that defined Steeler football, as well as the accompanying fire zone defense; a change so dramatic it made James Harrison obsolete overnight.
Some will argue that the Steelers are involved in tight games that they should be winning more comfortably. Even if true, they are, nonetheless, winning. Not as many complaints about clock management lately. How can there be? Nine games were decided by seven points or less, several in the last minute or overtime, and only two were losses.
Ryan Shazier (catastrophic injury), Ben Roethlisberger (retirement talk), Le’Veon Bell (holdout), Antonio Brown, Martavis Bryant and James Harrison (tantrums), the anthem controversy, Al Riveron, playing ten of last eleven games on national platforms, most in primetime, and one away game on Christmas. Did I mention they tied for the best record in the league?
Keeping the team.
Losing the team is often the kiss of death for many failing coaches. Not an easy a task on the professional level as some might think. Probably closer to herding cats than is comfortable.
Three things strike me as supporting this. First, Tomlin’s bold, very public assertion concerning the quality and destiny of his team which, unlike his ‘unleash hell’ remarks in 2009, have played out as accurate. Whether he was merely reciting a truth or issuing a challenge to back his play isn’t known, but doesn’t matter since both reflect a huge vote of confidence.
Second is the ongoing questioning of Tomlin’s leadership generated by some media and a fan faction, while the reviews from players and fellow professionals have unfailingly positive.
Finally, the reaction of Steelers players to the Harrison controversy is noteworthy. And can’t let the subject go without pointing out that with the notable and significant exception of Ben, they are all, both those ‘born’ or ‘adopted’ by the Steelers, Tomlin’s players.
One of the most significant areas of vulnerability for this team, particularly relative to teams like the Patriots, is little championship experience in the player ranks. With the departure of Harrison, the only active players who have been part of a championship team are Ben and William Gay.
There is plenty of managerial and institutional support in this regard, but I believe it is difficult to understate the importance of peer leadership, particularly as they head into increasingly uncharted territory. In this sense, the loss of Shazier has a double impact in that he may be missed as much in the locker room as on the field.
I can’t know for certain since I am not there, but the following appear to be the tip of the spear in team leadership that have helped this team keep focused and on an even keel throughout the regular season and, hopefully a successful run in the playoffs: Maurkice Pouncey, Ben, Ramon Foster, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Cameron Heyward, Shazier, Vince Williams, Mike Mitchell, Robert Golden, William Gay, Arthur Moats, and Stephon Tuitt. Likely emerging leaders: Tyler Matakevich, Al Villanueva, T.J. Watt, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Bud Dupree, Roosevelt Nix, Anthony Chickillo.
A few years ago, Art Rooney II stated in one of those low key, but oh-so-revealing end of the year sit-downs with Missy Matthews and Bob Labriola that one of the team goals going forward was to get a better handle on the injury situation which had been devastating the team season after season. You might have thought such a statement strange and fanciful because it is the common belief that injuries are unavoidable (true, imo), and subject in most cases to bad luck (not necessarily).
The Steelers have now completed the second season where the general rate of injuries, and particularly those of the season-ending variety, have been way down. This is seemingly a bizarre assertion considering what happened to Ryan Shazier, but beyond him what season-ending injuries, or those requiring surgery, have there been? James Connor, and…? Entering the playoffs, it appears that besides Connor, Shazier and probably B.J. Finney the team will be fully loaded. In the past there may have been that many scratches from one position group.
To be continued…