'Chameleon' Tomlin hardly reveling in success with Steelers
PITTSBURGH (AP) The moment called for celebration, maybe even a hint of introspection. Mike Tomlin was having none of it.
Minutes after becoming just the eighth coach in NFL history to collect 100 victories in his first 10 seasons on the job, a one-sided 27-20 clinic in snowy Buffalo last Sunday that moved the Pittsburgh Steelers all alone atop the AFC North, Tomlin wasn't exactly in the mood to think about What It All Means.
''It means I've been here awhile,'' he said with typical directness.
And that's it.
So what if five of the other seven coaches to get to the century mark - Don Shula, Joe Gibbs, Tony Dungy, John Madden and Mike Ditka - in their first decade are in the Hall of Fame? So what if the triumph made the Steelers the only franchise to have three coaches reach the 100-win plateau?
Tomlin doesn't do big picture. Never has. He doesn't do hype or noise either. The only step the 44-year-old focuses on is the next one. It's that kind of focus that helped him carve out his own identity in a veteran locker room after replacing Bill Cowher in 2007. It's that kind of focus that's helped Pittsburgh navigate the seemingly impossible in an era overridden with parity. He's won a Super Bowl, been to another and still hasn't posted a single season with a losing record, remarkable considering the Steelers went through a generational shift on the fly without bottoming out.
Yet in some corners of one of the league's most ardent fan bases, it's not enough. Hop on social media after a loss - and heck, sometimes after wins - and do a hashtag search under #FireTomlin. There's a cottage industry every Sunday on his decision making, whether it's his clock management or his love of attempting 2-point conversions when conventional wisdom says send the kick team out instead.
It's noise Tomlin blocks out, something he chalks up to simply part of the gig while leading a franchise whose hallway is filled with more Lombardi Trophies than any other team in the NFL. Tomlin's players, however, hear it. Loudly.
''At the end of the day, if you don't got haters, you ain't doing something right,'' center Maurkice Pouncey said. ''He's a winning coach and next thing you know, he loses and he's the worst coach in America. I mean, come on.''
As if to prove his point, Pouncey motions toward the door of the team's practice facility. The criticism always comes from outside that door. Never inside it. While cornerback William Gay calls Tomlin a ''player's coach,'' he cautions it doesn't mean what you think it means.
''It's like that father/son thing,'' said Gay, part of Tomlin's initial draft class in 2007. ''You will get your butt whupped or get in trouble if you do something wrong. But if you don't do nothing wrong, he will applaud you, he will love on you.''
The longest tenured Steelers haven't seen much of a change in Tomlin since the day the team hired the largely unknown 34-year-old to replace the popular and highly successful Cowher. In a profession where coaches seem to age at warp speed, there isn't a speck of gray in Tomlin's hair. Don't let his energy and youthfulness fool you. When it's time to go to work, the easy smile that pops up when he's needling his players disappears.
''I think we felt like Mike was somebody that could command the attention of the room day in and day out,'' Steelers president Art Rooney II told The Associated Press. ''I think he's done that. He has the attention of the players and I think over the years he's understood when to push the buttons and when to back off, all the little nuances you think you learn in time. There's no doubt in my mind he's learned and continued to improve and somebody that's always looking to improve.''
And adapt, too.
The shuffleboard table -- and frequent tournaments it invited -- that was a locker room fixture in the early days of his tenure vanished during a pair of 8-8 seasons in 2012 and 2013 and haven't returned. The pool table remains but has morphed into a gold-felt waystation for random items for the equipment managers to deal with after practice. The closest you'll find to games in the locker room are the infrequent basketball shooting contests like the one that broke out Friday between running back Le'Veon Bell and defensive end Cam Heyward.
Tomlin stood just off to the side while Bell - using one hand - sank a handful from 20 feet away. After making a quick visit to rookie nose tackle Javon Hargrave's locker, Tomlin stopped by again and caught a Heyward shot hopelessly wide of the mark.
''See what I mean Head,'' Tomlin said, referring to Heyward by his nickname. ''You just like giving your money away.''
The sequence provided a snapshot of what makes Tomlin an effective communicator. A private chat with a rookie nose tackle recovering from a concussion (Hargrave) quickly followed by a playful jab at his defensive co-captain (Heyward), part of an ethos of ''treating everybody fairly but not the same,'' as Pouncey put it.
''He's a chameleon to how players are,'' added guard Ramon Foster. ''He knows he can talk to Ben (Roethlisberger) one way, he can talk to us another way, the defense another way. A lot of coaches don't do that. A lot of coaches know only one way: their way. He has his ways, but he also knows how to open it up.''
He lets his players be themselves, at least within reason. He's never publicly called out Brown for his over-the-top touchdown celebrations, even though they occasionally draw a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. Yes, Tomlin would prefer Brown to tone it down. It's not worth taking him to task in front of the whole world to do it.
''Why micromanage?'' Foster said. ''I've heard of coaches doing that and it puts guys on eggshells. This game has as much pressure as it is. As long as you're doing your job, that's what he cares about.''
Though he gives his staff a wide berth, the coach whose favorite ''Tomlin-ism'' includes ''putting a hand in the pile'' makes sure his hand is in each one. For offensive linemen like Foster, it means pulling up the profile of an opposing defensive lineman during a given week and running down the player's resume.
On the surface, it's a basic scouting report. The edge in his voice, however, hints at something deeper.
''We take it to the extreme to where it's a challenge,'' Foster said. ''He knows how to pick guys. He's always poking.''
And always winning, too. The Steelers are in position for a third straight playoff berth and seventh in 10 years despite a four-game swoon in the middle of the season that once again set Twitter on fire. Funny how the clamoring died down during Pittsburgh's ensuing four-game winning streak - a run in which the Steelers never trailed.
Yet the credit has gone to Bell's seemingly tireless legs and a resilient defense , not to the guy who Roethlisberger awarded the game ball after reaching 100 victories.
That's fine by Tomlin, though the guys he leads onto the field every week know better.
''It seems from the college level on up they're always trying to fire somebody and find the new best thing,'' Foster said. ''To win in this league is hard. I think you can ask some of the other teams around the league. Some teams are hot. Some are bad, but we have consistently been a team that you consider a Super Bowl contender. That has a lot to do with what he's doing.''
Even if he doesn't want to talk about it. Ever.
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