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Old 12-14-2009, 05:20 AM   #1
Galax Steeler
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Default On the Steelers: Can Tomlin salvage season?

Monday, December 14, 2009
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Mike Tomlin now tackles perhaps his biggest job as a young head coach. He must keep things from spinning out of control over the next three weeks.

Tomlin performed a remarkable feat by winning a Super Bowl and two division titles in his first two years as Steelers coach, particularly after taking over a disheartened group that went 8-8 in 2006 after winning Super Bowl XL.

This is a new and different assignment. His champions not only ride a five-game losing streak, they look like a team that has lost its will after stunning defeats at the hands of Kansas City, Oakland and Cleveland.

His players failed to back up Tomlin's promises of "Redemption Sunday" in Baltimore and to "unleash hell in December." Then the coach himself failed to back up his promises to make lineup and schematic changes in Cleveland. There is evidence of crying wolf all around with no bite to follow.

There is no indication of unchecked dissension on his team other than the players' anger over what has taken place the past five weeks. However, as losses pile up, friction often follows, and it can be a harbinger for 2010 if it does.

That may be why Tomlin not once, but twice mentioned how he liked the fight in his players after they lost in Cleveland Thursday night.

"I like the fight in the group," Tomlin said. "I trust that they'll continue to do that. It's a close-knit group, I trust that they'll continue to stick together. But fighting and sticking together is not going to win football games. Performance is and preparation is, and we have an extended week here in preparation for our next performance so we better make moves to get that done."

The Steelers have a well-founded reputation for being a close-knit group. There was little hint of discord in 2006 as the Super Bowl XL champions started the season 2-6 and questions swirled whether their coach, Bill Cowher, would return for another season. They went 6-2 the second half of that season to finish 8-8.

This is different. They were a confident group after winning six of their first eight games as Super Bowl XLIII champions, only to be knocked senseless by several of the 98-pound weaklings of the NFL. That swagger in their step turned into a wobble.

"I can't really pinpoint why we're losing," Hines Ward said. "We all have a hand in that."

If the losing does not stop, their five-game skid could turn into eight, the longest by the Steelers since 1969. That was Chuck Noll's first season as coach of a dreadful team with a long history of losing. Noll's '69ers won their first game and lost the rest to go 1-13.

An eight-game losing streak for a Super Bowl champion would be unprecedented and no one knows what it might spawn, but there is evidence from the past that divisiveness can follow. A few instances:

In 1988, on the way to a 5-11 season, Noll lost control of his coaches and nearly quit before he agreed to fire some on his staff at management's behest after the season.

In 1991, former starting quarterback Bubby Brister refused to go into a losing second half in Houston when told to by offensive coordinator Joe Walton, and Brister publicly told everyone about it. Nevertheless, Noll installed Brister as the starter for the next two games, both wins, then Noll retired at the end of a 7-9 season.

In 1998, Bill Cowher took the play-calling duties away from offensive coordinator Ray Sherman during the season as the team ended a 7-9 record with a five-game losing streak.

In June of 2000, coming off a 6-10 season, teammates brawled in the locker room after a minicamp practice.

Yes, the Steelers remain technically in the race for a playoff spot, as remote as it may be, but their real battle is to regain their footing over their final three games.

"With three games left," Ward said, "you're going to see who really wants to go out here and play for the pride for this organization, for our city and who doesn't want to be around here."

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