This offseason the Pittsburgh Steelers said goodbye to just about all of Bill Cowher’s holdovers. Dick LeBeau. Troy Polamalu. Ike Taylor. Brett Keisel. Gone, gone, gone and gone. They also extended Head Coach Mike Tomlin through 2018. These moves are more significant than the faces you will and won’t see on the field and sidelines in 2015; they confirm Tomlin’s place in the upper echelon of coaches and that the Steelers are, and will remain for some time, his team.
When Tomlin took over for popular long-time coach Cowher, he did so in an enviable position. They had the franchise quarterback, the stellar defense, the soon-to-be Hall of Fame defensive coach, and a championship core. The Steelers won the Super Bowl in just his second season and won the AFC Championship game again two years later. But what made his job “easier” also fueled his critics: this was Cowher’s team and he was just the figurehead. Not anymore, and it really hasn’t been that way for some time (if it ever was).
Cowher’s great players got older, more injured, more inconsistent, and now have finally retired. While Steelers Nation expects to compete for a Super Bowl every year (six Lombardi Trophies will do that to you) Tomlin quietly rebuilt this team without there ever truly being a “rebuilding period.” The Steelers at worse have been in the playoff race until the last weekend of every season he’s coached. At best they won the whole thing.
When Tomlin took over, he put his ego aside and let LeBeau do his thing on defense, not an easy thing for a guy who moved up the NFL coaching ranks on the defensive side of the ball. Now Tomlin and new Defensive Coordinator Keith Butler will make their mark on D.
How that defense performs will determine whether or not the Steelers are division contenders or Super Bowl contenders. The offense alone will keep them in the division race. If all of the questions on D turn into exclamation points, the Steelers will be playing some deep postseason football. Now, more about that offense, where Tomlin truly made his impression on the team while LeBeau oversaw the D.
Jerome Bettis retired before Tomlin got there. He ran the wheels off of “Fast Willie.” He got the most out of the talented but maddeningly inconsistent Rashard Mendenhall. He squeezed the last bit of Hines Ward magic out of the former pro bowler. He replaced those stellar Super Bowl starters with the likes of Le’Veon Bell, the league’s best all-around back, and plucked the league’s leading receiver, Antonio Brown, out of the sixth round.
Tomlin turned the weakness of the team (the old and injured offensive line) into a strength. Even when he and GM Kevin Colbert “miss” (Mendenhall and Ziggy Hood) in the first round, those guys start in the Super Bowl. I think the Cleveland Browns would take that.
A former wide receiver himself, Tomlin’s ability to find and develop wide receivers (Colbert and receivers coach Richard Mann deserve credit for that as well) is about to take on legendary status. As if finding Brown wasn’t enough, Tomlin’s pro bowl picks include Emmaneul Sanders and Mike Wallace, replaced by Brown and emerging third-year wide out Markus Wheaton.
Wheaton will be made expendable by the emergence of Martavis Bryant, who exploded on the scene for eight touchdowns in ten games last season. Behind him is Sammie Coates who has the chance to be, well, the next Martavis Bryant, the player he was most often compared to in the draft process. Draft pro bowl wide receivers. Let them walk when they aren’t in the budget. Repeat. The incredible development of pass catchers has helped turn Roethlisberger into a clutch but injured and inconsistent quarterback to the league’s leading thrower.
Bringing in Todd Haley and his quick-pass offense helped keep Roethlisberger healthy and efficient as well. Who else whined for the better part of two years about Tomlin dismissing Roethlisberger favorite Bruce Arians for Haley? Now Haley and Ben are fishing buddies in the offseason, defensive tormentors during it.
Stellar draft finds. New coordinators. A remade Roethlisberger. Yes, this is Tomlin’s team. How that defense performs will tell if that’s a great thing or a legendary thing. Count this member of Steeler Nation as a believer. Lombardi Trophy number seven anyone?