As he walked toward midfield at Heinz Field on Dec. 19, his team having secured an upset of eventual AFC No. 1 seed Tennessee, Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin looked at the camera following him, pushed the microphone of his headset up, looked right in the lens and blew a kiss.
Maybe it was meant for family. But since this is Tomlin, it’s entirely possible it was meant for his haters and everyone who doubted him and the Steelers this year.
The Steelers earned their way into the postseason with the win over the rival Baltimore Ravens combined with the Colts’ embarrassing loss to the Jaguars and the Las Vegas Raiders playing for the win against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Tomlin’s still never had a losing season as Pittsburgh’s head coach. It’s the 10th time in his 15 years that the Steelers are in the playoffs. This may be the their most unlikely postseason berth — and it may also be Tomlin’s best coaching job.
Which may be why Tomlin wasn’t just blowing a kiss but jumping in front of the camera in the postgame locker room to dance on Instagram Live, much to the delight of his players.
Getting to the playoffs is all that matters. All any team wants is that chance.
The unexpected circumstances began even before the season. Ben Roethlisberger, whom many believed was set for retirement — he’s hinted at it for a few years — instead agreed to a pay cut. Roethlisberger had not played well down the stretch in 2020 as his decision-making faltered and his throws did, too. He wasn’t able to throw long passes consistently, which he had attributed to elbow surgery.
Once Roethlisberger wanted to come back, Pittsburgh was locked in to playing him. The 39-year-old hasn’t regained strength in his throwing shoulder (just 6.2 yards per attempt this season), his throws look slow and his running speed makes famously slow Tom Brady look like Usain Bolt. (OK, maybe not Bolt.)
Roethlisberger has been sacked 38 times and his QBR of 35.7 is by far the worst of his career, save for 2019 when he played just two games.
Defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, who had 11 sacks in 15 games last year, was lost for the season in training camp, the first of several key injuries. Over the course of the season Pittsburgh also lost receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, starting guard Kevin Dotson, and tight end Eric Ebron. All teams deal with players missing large chunks of time, but with a quarterback who isn’t mobile and whose throwing motion at times looks painful, having the best possible offensive line and pass-catchers are a necessity.
After a surprising season-opening win over Buffalo, the Steelers lost three straight. “You guys buried us at 1-3,” Tomlin said Sunday night. Pittsburgh rebounded to win four straight.
Pittsburgh tied the 0-8 Detroit Lions in mid-November. It was an ugly result at the time, but that tie kept the 9-7-1 Steelers ahead of the three teams who finished 9-8 in the AFC.
Tomlin got the best out of T.J. Watt this season, his 22.5 sacks tying Michael Strahan’s single-season record and all but locking up the defensive player of the year award.
Some Pittsburgh fans are bothered that the team has been one-and-done in its last two playoff appearances and hasn’t been to the Super Bowl since the 2010 season. That’s a fair criticism, but perhaps one that’s privileged if you’re a fan of the rival Browns or a team like the Lions, where just getting to the postseason is an achievement.
Tomlin acknowledged on Sunday that his team has warts, and he does too. But no coach in the history of the NFL has become a first-time head coach and put together 15 consecutive seasons without being below .500 — Tomlin has. And based on what we’ve seen over the last three years, the fact that Tomlin dealt with Antonio Brown for nine seasons before the rest of us were fully exposed to what a petulant jerk he really is, well that deserves its own special recognition.
If you look at Pittsburgh’s roster, it’s not the strongest. But the regular season is over and the playoffs are set to start and here they are again, held together by a man franchise icon Terry Bradshaw has dismissed as merely “a cheerleader.”
Call him rah-rah if you want, but Tomlin’s ways continue to work.