Mike Tomlin has two defining characteristics as a head coach. First, and most importantly, he’s a winner. In 11 years as the Steelers’ head coach he’s never had a losing record; he’s won at least 10 games eight times, and he won it all once. Secondly, he’s a players’ coach—the kind of guy free agents seek out each spring.
Those two traits find themselves at odds this week as the Le’Veon Bell situation unfolds in Pittsburgh. Tomlin has to manage the players who are there publicly ripping the player who isn’t, and that player just so happens to be one-third of the league’s best offensive triumvirate.
Tempers are hot, at least among some Steelers offensive players who have committed the cardinal sin of negatively commenting on a teammate’s contract. Surely they thought Bell would be back around Labor Day just like last season, and they waited until the all-important Wednesday practice before airing their grievances publicly.
“Honestly, it’s a little selfish,” Maurkice Pouncey said.
“Here’s a guy who doesn’t give a damn,” Ramon Foster said.
“He f----- us,” one veteran player summed it up for ESPN.
Tomlin will have to keep the peace until and when Bell arrives… whenever that will be. If Bell shows up in September, Tomlin should definitely sit him for at least a week to get his body game-ready—and as a matter of principle. If Bell doesn’t sign his franchise tender until 10 weeks into the season—a move that would guarantee him the crucial six-game accrual that will allow him to finally be a free agent next offseason—that will challenge the entire organization, and especially the head coach with whom the buck stops.
“When he gets here, that’s when we’ll start quantifying all Le’Veon Bell things, his overall readiness, the amount of time we have between his arrival and our next competition, etc. etc.,” Tomlin said Wednesday. “We’ll weigh all of those things at the appropriate time. Right now we’re just singularly focused on the guys that are here and working and who have been here and working.”
This came a day after former Steelers great and current Tomlin antagonist Terry Bradshaw dusted off his usual criticisms of the coach whose eight playoff berths is third-most among all active coaches. Bradshaw has for years looked down on Tomlin’s seemingly loose vibe, which some could say contributed to controversies from Joey Porter arguing on-field with multiple Bengals to Antonio Brown broadcasting the coach’s private talk on Facebook Live.
“I played for a tough sucker, and I was afraid of him, and we played our ass off for him because we feared him,” Bradshaw said on San Diego radio, speaking of Chuck Noll. “I don’t see that with this guy. He’s chest bumping and all that. I’m the head of the corporation, I’m the CEO, I’m the chairman of the board, I’m talking to the stockholders telling them here’s how we’re gonna do at the end of the quarter. I’m selling this thing, and I’m not delivering the goods, which is championships. You’ve got to face the criticism. I’m sorry, but he’s not my kind of coach. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.”
Bradshaw also mentioned that Tomlin doesn’t return his calls (why would he?), questioned how the Steelers haven’t been in more Super Bowls in Tomlin’s tenure despite sharing a conference with Tom Brady and/or Peyton Manning the entire time and said the Steelers should “move this running back down the highway” even though Bell is unsigned and can’t be traded.
But Tomlin doesn’t have to be Bradshaw’s kind of coach to win over the locker room. It’s exactly the type of coaching and relationship-building Bradshaw disdains that players gravitate toward. On a trip to Steelers camp last month, I spoke to Morgan Burnett and Joe Haden, two defensive backs who picked Pittsburgh in free agency within the past 13 months, on how much playing for a guy like Tomlin factored into their decision.
“Just the way that when he speaks and commands the room, you can tell the passion he has for his players, you respect that a ton,” says Burnett, who signed a thee-year deal in Pittsburgh this spring after spending his first eight years in Green Bay. “That plays a major role.”
Tomlin met Haden and his parents during the 2010 pre-draft process, but the Browns would draft Haden seventh overall and the Steelers would take Pouncey, his Florida teammate, with the 18th pick. Haden not only played the Steelers twice a year but formed a friendship with Antonio Brown and kept up with Pouncey and fellow Gator-turned-Steeler Marcus Gilbert.
As Haden refused to take a paycut from the Browns in the 2017 preseason, he looked at Pittsburgh’s winning tradition and how Tomlin treated his players as the two main reasons for signing with them hours after his release.
“You could just tell he takes care of his players,” Haden says. “He tries to protect them with the media. He’s very ‘all on him’. He gives it to you blood-raw. He lets you know where you stand.”
When I asked Tomlin what about his style endears players to him, he tried to avoid the question by saying he doesn’t dwell on it. He’s heard it before, and certainly whatever he has said in the past has been used against him by the likes of Bradshaw.
“I like to focus my energy on providing these guys here what it is they need to pursue and attain greatness. You do those things and all the dominoes fall,” Tomlin says. “It’s flattering and I appreciate it and that word-of-mouth is awesome, but that probably happens by focusing on the guys that you need to be focused on and that’s the guys we have here.”
Here is what you’ll keep hearing from Tomlin, especially as it relates to Bell. It’s that crafty word he’s been cleverly used all this week that will keep intact both his player-friendly reputation and, for his sake, a winning locker room.