Ron Cook: Finest moment for Mike Tomlin as Steelers coach

December 3, 2013
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

It's pretty simple, isn't it? For the most part, those people who respect Mike Tomlin as a man and like the job he's doing as Steelers coach believed his story Tuesday about his sideline comportment in Baltimore and are looking forward to him having his team ready to play the Miami Dolphins. Those who don't didn't buy what Tomlin was selling and see the controversy as one more reason for the team to get rid of him.

There are a lot of both out there because Tomlin is one of the more polarizing figures in Pittsburgh sports history.

Put me in the first group.

In a fascinating and revealing 20-minute session with the media on the subject, Tomlin did a wonderful job explaining how he ended up on the field in front of Ravens kick returner Jacoby Jones. He was contrite. He made it clear he deserved any punishment the NFL gives him. He even provided just the right amount of levity when he said his two sons still were honked off at him for becoming a national story in a very inappropriate way.

Other than perhaps Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Tomlin has the most scrutinized job in town. He always handles that part of his position well. But this might have been his finest moment.

Usually, I'm the most cynical person in the world when it comes to sports and the people who coach and play them. But I found Tomlin to be sincere. I believed him when he said he didn't step in front of Jones intentionally. If I felt otherwise, I would suggest the Steelers fire him immediately. There is no place for cheaters in any game.

I know, maybe I am a fool. I'm the first to admit that. But you know what? I would much rather be naive than mistakenly question a good, decent man's integrity. I'll criticize Tomlin's coaching decisions all day long, if I think it is warranted. Those are fair game for him or any coach. But I'll be damned if I question his probity based on what I saw Thursday night. He doesn't deserve that.

That doesn't mean the NFL shouldn't come down hard on Tomlin. All of us make honest mistakes and often have to pay a stiff price for them. So it will be with Tomlin. What's taking so long for the league to figure out his punishment, it's hard to say. But, clearly, a six-figure fine won't be too much. Nor will a one-game suspension. Docking the Steelers a draft pick might be excessive, but Tomlin has only himself to blame if that's the case. He was in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

For many of Tomlin's critics, no punishment for him will be enough. They want to see him fired. I'm guessing they believe in one or all of three major myths about Tomlin.

TOMLIN WAS HIRED ONLY BECAUSE OF THE ROONEY RULE

Named after Steelers owner Dan Rooney, who pushed for it, the rule requires NFL teams to interview at least one minority candidate when it has a head coaching opening. There's no question that got Tomlin in the door after Bill Cowher resigned after the 2006 season. But he took advantage of the opportunity by doing a fabulous job of selling himself. He hasn't disappointed the Rooneys and many of the team's fans by winning two division titles and a share of a third in his first six seasons. The Steelers won the Super Bowl after the 2008 season and played in the one after the 2010 season.

It's true, the Steelers missed the playoffs last season and probably will miss them this season. But have you looked around the NFL lately? The league isn't designed for teams to win big every year. Ask the Atlanta Falcons, who played in the NFC championship last season. Ask the Houston Texans, who were a sexy pick to win the Super Bowl this season.

If there's any racial issue here, it's coming from a lot of the anti-Tomlin people. Not all of his critics are racists, but many are. They don't like Tomlin and never will because he's black.

TOMLIN WENT TO THOSE TWO SUPER BOWLS WITH COWHER'S PLAYERS

People forget Tomlin inherited a team that went 8-8 in Cowher's final season. He also stepped into a difficult situation. The veterans wanted one of Cowher's assistants -- Russ Grimm or Ken Whisenhunt -- not an outsider from the Minnesota Vikings. Star guard Alan Faneca also stepped down as captain because of a contract dispute with the front office and easily could have become a major distraction.

Welcome Coach T!

Tomlin didn't just keep the team together. The Steelers won the division title that season. He wasn't a great coach then. He practiced his players too hard too often during the long season and wore them down. But he listened to them when they complained, learned and eased up the next season. The Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII. By then, it was Tomlin's team, not Cowher's.

TOMLIN ISN'T A DISCIPLINARIAN THE WAY COWHER WAS

Tomlin isn't the toughest coach in the NFL, but I firmly believe this: He is more of a disciplinarian than Cowher.

They say Tomlin's players celebrate too much after even routine plays. They are right. But have you watched other teams recently? Their players also dance when they get a first down or make a tackle when their team is down by 25 points. It's ridiculous. But it's also today's NFL.

Tomlin isn't perfect when it comes to discipline. Why he kept Alameda Ta'amu on the team last season after Ta'amu went on a dangerous rampage on the South Side is inexplicable. But he also has been tough at times. He wasn't afraid to embarrass Pro Bowler Casey Hampton by putting him on the physically unable to perform list when Hampton showed at training camp overweight. He also benched Rashard Mendenhall and Jarvis Jones, publicly calling them out for their work ethic and attention to detail.

Those are just a few examples.

As for Cowher, who was a great coach in his own way, I'm reminded of something former Steelers running back Jerome Bettis said after teammate Plaxico Burress left as a free agent to sign with the New York Giants, coached by the rigid Tom Coughlin. "I know [Burress] is not a stickler for the rules and Coughlin is all about rules. ... Coach Cowher allowed us a lot of flexibility. He never fined us for anything. You came late, you never got fined. You never got reprimanded for anything."

It's funny, Cowher was never questioned as a disciplinarian. It must have been because of that big jaw. It couldn't have been because he's white, right?

Tomlin will survive this sideline fiasco. His critics had better come to grips with it. He will be coaching the Steelers and winning a lot of games for a long, long time.

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