There are several outstanding candidates for NFL Coach of the Year this fall. Todd Haley is the one I would bet on if he ends up leading the Chiefs to 11 wins and an AFC West title.
Certainly strong arguments could be made for the Patriots’ Bill Belichick or the Falcons’ Mike Smith, whose teams have the best records in football. Raheem Morris of the Bucs probably over-achieved with his talent more than any other coach, with Lovie Smith of the Bears a close second in that category.
But none of those worthy candidates overcame all the adversity that Mike Tomlin has been forced to endure in leading the Steelers to an 11-4 record, the likely No. 2 seed in the AFC and the distinction of being the only team in the league which has yet to lose to an opponent that did not win 10 or more games this year.
Although his writing style was a bit odd in this column, Joe Starkey of the Tribune-Review made the case for Tomlin’s candidacy on Thursday, laying out many of the obstacles Tomlin has overcome this year including the Ben Roethlisberger four-game suspension, the idiotic Santonio Holmes trade (which I can promise was not desired by Tomlin or Kevin Colbert), Jeff Reed’s psychological meltdown, and way too many injuries to key players, including losing both starting tackles for the year.
One key accomplishment that Starkey omitted was Tomlin’s handling of James Harrison’s situation after Harrison was clearly being targeted by officials intent on making unsportsmanlike conduct calls on any hard hits.
Tomlin had to walk a fine line, not wanting to criticize officials for fear of fines and retaliation in the form of future flags, not able to criticize NFL commissioner Roger Goodell (because he is a fascist … and particularly with a potential labor strike), but yet still having to show Harrison his coach was behind him, because Harrison was so upset that he contemplated mid-season retirement. Somehow Tomlin succeeded in all endeavors.
He had already secured a long-term deal with the Rooney family before the season started, but Tomlin needed a coaching campaign like this to secure his standing with the entire Steelers Nation.
Most everyone was still behind him entering the fall, but there were questions after he appeared helpless last year during a notorious five-game losing streak that included losses to three horrible teams, special teams debacles, mass confusion in the Troy Polamalu-less secondary, and a public dispute between superstars Roethlisberger and Hines Ward over the other player’s injury.
But this team this year has been fundamentally sound in all phases of the game, a fast-starting team that finds ways to win most weeks, and does not lose to bad teams. That is good coaching.
This is not a great team (picked to finish 9-7 by most preseason pundits), and became worse after the Holmes trade and all the injuries. But a Browns win away from 12-4 is a great season, and with a few breaks (mainly Baltimore defeating New England in the playoffs), a seventh Super Bowl title is a possibility; and this might be the best coaching effort of all those if the Lombardi Trophy returns to Pittsburgh.