The Steelers Are Slowly Becoming Mike Tomlin’s Team

At some point over the past four seasons, perhaps after Super Bowl XLIII, you’ve heard somebody, somewhere, say of Mike Tomlin  … “Well, he’s only winning because he has Bill Cowher’s players.”

Or something along those lines.

It’s the same thing Jon Gruden went through in Tampa Bay after he took “Tony Dungy’s team” to a level Dungy never approached — the Super Bowl. To this day that Buccaneers team (which included Tomlin on its coaching staff, by the way) is still referred to as “Tony Dungy’s team.” I’ve always hated this logic. For one, it’s not exactly easy to take over a locker room full of established NFL veterans and the ego’s they carry and win them over with a new way of doing things, and then getting them to go out and win a Super Bowl. Especially when the new coach was able to do it after the previous coach (in this case, Dungy) failed year after year.

Tomlin, of course, endured a similar thing in Pittsburgh because he was taking over a team with a cupboard full of talent, and following in the footsteps of a future Hall of Fame head coach that had won a Super Bowl just two years earlier. But it’s important to keep in mind that the team Tomlin took over for wasn’t a Super Bowl champion, but a team that went 8-8 and missed the playoffs.

Of course, Cowher’s presence is still felt on this team in a huge way with guys like Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, Hines Ward, Heath Miller, Aaron Smith, Casey Hampton, Brett Kiesel and Max Starks still playing at an extremely high level. But sooner or later we’re going to have to stop looking at this team as the one Bill Cowher assembled, and start viewing it as a team that Mike Tomlin has had a hand in building. And slowly but surely we’re starting to reach that point.

Let’s take a look at how “The Tomlin Drafts” have started to make an impact on this year’s team. In some cases it’s a huge impact, like Lawrence Timmons; in other cases, it could be one of the “little things” like David Johnson making a key block on a 50-yard touchdown run in overtime…

2007: Five Players Remaining — Lawrence Timmons, LaMarr Woodley, Matt Spaeth, Daniel Sepulveda, William Gay

In 2007 I was still working for the man, aimlessly wandering around trying to figure out what I wanted with life (not that I’ve figured it out in the years since). I remember going into the office the Monday following this draft and hearing from a co-working about how awful the Steelers messed up because Lawrence Timmons was a reach (though, to be fair, we all thought that at the time), LaMarr Woodley couldn’t rush the passer(!) and why in the hell would you trade up to take a punter?

Today? Boom.

After being a role-player for the first two years of his career, Timmons became a full-time starter a year ago and struggled through an injury-plagued season. Now that he’s fully healthy he looks to be a complete freak in the middle of the defense, and after four weeks has more tackles than any other player in the NFL. He’s improved against the run, he’s a menace on the blitz, and he’s athletic enough to cover wide receivers, let alone tight ends and running backs. I still think he can be everything Kendrell Bell was supposed to be.

We had our first real taste of what Woodley was capable of during the playoff game against Jacksonville in 2007. The Jaguars couldn’t block him during that game as he recorded two sacks and spent most of his night in Jacksonville’s backfield. The next season he took over the starting job opposite James Harrison and has become one of the best pass-rushers in the NFL, recording 26 sacks since the start of the ’08 season.

Trading up for a punter may be unorthodox and a bit bizarre, but Sepulveda’s leg has been huge for the Steelers this season in the field position game, which is quite important given the state of the passing game over the first month of the season. Plus, I never get tired of watching this…

William Gay is the new Deshea Townsend, and yes, that’s a good thing. If you recall Townsend’s career with the Steelers he struggled to crack the starting lineup early on, and spent parts of the first five years of his career as a nickle back. In 2008 and the early parts of 2010, Gay has proven to be a more than capable player in a similar role, even if he’s not quite ready to be a starter.

2008: Four Players Remaining — Rashard Mendenhall, Limas Sweed, Dennis Dixon, Ryan Mundy

Overall, this was one of the worst draft classes in recent Steelers memory. Mendenhall is turning into a top-level running back, while the rest of the class has been a large disappointment.

2009: Four Players Remaining – Ziggy Hood, Mike Wallace, Keenan Lewis, David Johnson

It’s tough to evaluable a draft class after just one full season, but Ziggy Hood is stuck behind three aging, but still excellent starters up front. Even so, he’s been a positive player in the Steelers defensive line rotation and is just waiting for his time to start.

We still haven’t seen what Mike Wallace is fully capable of this season, almost entirely due to the revolving door at quarterback, but after four games he’s once again leading the league in yards per catch after also doing so as a rookie.

Still need to see more from Keenan Lewis and David Johnson.

2010: Eight Players Made The Team – Maurkice Pouncey, Jason Worilds, Emmanuel Sanders, Thaddeus Gibson, Crezdon Butler, Stevenson Sylvester, Jonathan Dwyer, Antonio Brown

Still way too early to make any definitive statements about this class, but the early returns are very positive. Maurkice Pouncey might already be the best player on the offensive line, while Jason Worilds, Emmanuel Sanders, Stevenson Sylvester and Antonio Brown have all made sizable contributions to an improved special teams unit.

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  • countertorque

    I like your analysis of Tomlin’s success so far. I agree that it’s time to stop considering this team as Cowher’s.

    However, I disagree with your characterization of Dungy’s performance in TB. Dungy took a team that was a complete loser and took it to the playoffs multiple times, up to 1 TD away from a superbowl appearance. He made that franchise respectable. Gruden won the Superbowl the very next year. He beat the team he had been coaching the previous year, which was still using Gruden’s playcalls and signals. Gruden was never able to achieve anything like that level of success in subsequent years. I think there’s good reason to give Dungy most of the credit for the Bucs success.

  • Steeler Stan

    Ryan Mundy called and wants to know why you left him out of the 2008 class.

    • Gretz

      Damn, thanks for catching that. Fixing it now.

  • IsraelP

    I didn’t think anyone considered this Cowher’s team anymore.

    And does it matter that Aaron Smith and Hines Ward were drafted by the Donahoe regime?

    And Countertorque is right on regarding Dungy’s Buccaneers.

  • steeler junky

    To anyone who has been paying attention over the past 3 years Tomlins approach to being a head coach can be followed quite easily.
    1st year- Tomlin knew he had inherited a good team. So he tried to draft players who could eventually challenge or replace starters. Then asserted his authority , pushed, prodded and evaluated what he had.
    2nd & 3d -year tweaked the team a little here a little there. Realized at the end he had not done enough!
    4th year- realized the team needed to upgrade in some areas to improve. Which included position players and 2 new coaches.
    Besides drafted players. You have to consider all the free agent position (drafted and undrafted) players who have been brought in to help improve the team.

  • steeler junky

    To anyone who has been paying attention over the past 3 years Tomlins approach to being a head coach can be followed quite easily.
    1st year- Tomlin knew he had inherited a good team. So he tried to draft players who could eventually challenge or replace starters. Then asserted his authority , pushed, prodded and evaluated what he had.
    2nd & 3d -year tweaked the team a little here a little there. Realized at the end he had not done enough!
    4th year- realized the team needed to upgrade in some areas to improve. Which included position players and 2 new coaches.
    Besides drafted players. You have to consider all the free agent position (drafted and undrafted) players who have been brought in to help improve the team.

  • dennisonschili

    Taking the old coaches team to the superbowl is a reacurring theme in the NFL. I can’t explain it but it happens constantly. Yes it goes against basic resoning and so that is probably why you didn’t take it deeper and look at history. Couple examples off the top of my head: In 94 Cowher inherited the Steelers and almost went to the superbowl in 94 and then did take them to the SB in 95. Barry Switzer took Jimmy Johnson’s Dallas team to the superbowl and won in his second year (against Pittsburgh). Shanahan inherited the Broncos and to this point three time superbowl loser Elway and won back to back Superbowls with Elway in 97-98. The year Gruden took Dungy’s team to the Superbowl was also the year Callahan took his old team (the Raiders) to the Superbowl. I can go on and on. Almost all superbowls are won by a new coach in his 2nd or 3rd year with the team using mostly legacy players (including Belichek). Don’t know why this is, but it is. Remember, Tomlin also inherited Colbert and Lebeau so you can’t really say that some guys are Cowher’s and some Tomlin’s, cause Colbert is the main guy behind the drafting of players although I am sure there is a ton of imput from the coaches. Just playing devils advocate here and pointing out some history to support the counter arguement.

    • dennisonschili

      meant 92 cowher took over.