Steelers camp report: Champs, mellow? Too strange for fiction
Aug. 16, 2009
By Mike Freeman
CBSSports.com National Columnist
(Note there are two videos with this report. See the link. - mesa)
LATROBE, Pa. -- It is silly to question the coaching tactics of Mike Tomlin, one of the best young minds in the NFL, who leads the most talent-soaked roster in football. Second-guessing the Super Bowl winner would certainly lead to an avalanche of fail.
Yet Tomlin is doing something, well, quite different. It's eye-opening in many ways and, in 20 years of covering NFL training camps, this version of Tomlin's camp is one of the more unique I've seen.
The defending champions are running a laid-back camp, arguably the most relaxed in football, which is contrary to the tough-guy image of the hardened Steelers.
Tomlin isn't running Camp Steel Town; he's running Camp Cupcake.
Just hours after witnessing the stark rigidity of New England's camp and seeing the blunt militarism of Cleveland's, Tomlin's camp was, well, different.
A number of Steelers players not participating in on-field drills sat on their helmets, kicking back when they weren't on the field. Most NFL coaches would rather have their prostates removed than witness players sitting on their helmets during practice, which is considered by many coaches to be a sign of laziness. The Seattle Seahawks and other teams used to actually fine players $50 for sitting on their helmets either in practice or games.
The Steelers have long attracted celebrities and the surreal glow of a sixth title has attracted stars like moths to a light. Singer John Legend made an appearance at camp and recently Pulp Fiction bald bad-ass Ving Rhames was on the camp sideline.
As practice unfolded, several players left the sideline area to greet Rhames, as did Tomlin who spoke to the actor for 10 minutes while practice was in progress. Linebacker James Harrison, who was sitting out practice, first took pictures with Rhames (during practice) then spoke to him for the entire second half of practice, around 45 minutes or so. Harrison ignored what was happening on the field, becoming engrossed in his conversations with the actor.
Tomlin has also given veterans extended time off from camp. Allowing older players to rest is not unprecedented with the Steelers or any other team, but Tomlin has taken resting his veterans to a new level. The first four days of camp saw receiver Hines Ward practice once. Ward called it CTO: coach's time off.
Other veterans like Troy Polamalu and Willie Parker have enjoyed extended camp rest as well.
"I can't knock what Coach Tomlin is doing," Ward said earlier in camp about Tomlin's practice plans. "He's a proven coach, he's won the Super Bowl. Yeah, it looks a little strange, me not out there and people wondering, but it's his team."
"Hines has money in my emotional bank account, so I take care of Hines," Tomlin said.
Translation: I trust my veterans. Now, all of you, shut up about how I run my team.
"I know my team and I trust how we do things," Tomlin said.
Tomlin has clearly moved down a different training camp path than most coaches. Part of it is easy to understand why. This is a team full of older players and Tomlin believes resting them more now -- and not running a strenuous camp -- will pay dividends toward the end of the season.
Tomlin also reflects the attitude of younger coaches who realize that today's players practice year-round. A strenuous camp, in their minds, is not only unnecessary, it can be detrimental.
So it all makes sense. It's just odd to witness. Very odd.
Tomlin is clearly trying to shake up his camp by not shaking up his camp.
Tomlin doesn't seem concerned, and when you look at the Steelers there should be little worry. Pittsburgh has the deepest team in football, a seasoned quarterback and team full of Pro Bowl self-starters who don't need a kick-start.
The only question is, how does a franchise that has everything, lost almost nothing since the Super Bowl and is clearly the team to beat stay hungry?
The Steelers' biggest opponents aren't the Patriots or Baltimore Ravens. The team's biggest opponent is satisfaction.
Satisfaction is what kills Super Bowl champs, annihilates their hunger and eradicates the passion that enabled them to survive the championship gauntlet in the first place.
There have been only eight Super Bowl repeats, which serves as the largest piece of evidence regarding the difficulty.
The Steelers nevertheless have an excellent chance at repeating for three main reasons:
1. They return 20 of 22 starters. Normally Super Bowl teams leak talent, but the Steelers lost two easily replaceable players.
2. Pittsburgh's defense might be deeper and better than last year.
3. The schedule is easier. Four games are against Detroit, Kansas City, Oakland and Denver. The Lions were winless last season and the Chiefs, Raiders and Broncos were a combined 15-33. It also helps the Steelers that many of those losing teams have quarterbacks who couldn't hit a bull in the rear with a grapefruit.
The stars do seem aligned for a repeat run, even if the softness of Steelers camp would make Chuck Noll weep.
"If there's any organization that knows how to repeat," said Ward, "it's this one."
Not a bad point. The Steelers did it twice in the '70s. They know how to win ... and win ... and win. Tomlin has proven he can do the same.
Yet his approach in camp is the antithesis of what many Super Bowl winning coaches do. Those coaches tend to push their teams even harder the following season, knowing the franchise has a large target on its back.
Tomlin has -- so far at least -- taken the opposite approach. Any time a coach and players are chatting with an actor mid-practice, it's a different camp.
There's one thing Tomlin has done which is consistent with past Super Bowl winning coaches. He deflected every Super Bowl repeat query, getting -- as Rhames might say -- medieval with the questioners. He has been the same way with the Steelers players. The topic is all but off limits.
Will Tomlin's more relaxed camp style work? It's the Steelers. Almost everything they do works.
That's not pulp or fiction.
But this will still be interesting to watch.
Ask a pro.
avatar WIBAGDERS: What are your plans for the running game this season? Should the fans expect to see Rashard Mendenhall more this year?
Mike Tomlin, head coach:
Mendenhall is a second-year player, and that is how I treat him, that is what I expect from him. I expect the jump from him that I expect from all second-year players. This is his second lap around the track in terms of being a professional athlete and football player. Those are our expectations of him. Injuries are a part of the game, we accept that. We don't make concessions because of injury. We expect him to be a mature guy and to this point that is how he has conducted himself. He acts like a guy who has been here before, a guy who is ready to burst onto the scene, a guy who is willing to put his hand in the pile and help us win.