Get a grip, 'Nation,' Tomlin's debut was a success


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That the first playoff loss of the Mike Tomlin Era happened to fall precisely on the first anniversary of Bill Cowher's resignation would be trivia almost beneath mention, unless, in some twisted way, it could at least partially explain the acidic post-mortem vitriol still gushing from so many outposts of what is so tiresomely identified as Steeler Nation.

Of course, it couldn't.

But then, neither could anything else.

The club's vast national audience and its thick local concentrations remain mightily hacked off about Saturday night's two-point loss to Jacksonville, and its reliably lunatic fringe is squealing as though some kind of sacred trust has been violated.

The apportionment of anger directed squarely at Tomlin shouldn't be worth a column, but I've got nothin' to do.

Let's go back, usefully enough, to the anniversary.

A year ago this week, the Steelers awoke to find themselves without their Super Bowl coach, their Hall of Fame-likely coach, facing an offseason in which Pro Bowlers Joey Porter and Jeff Hartings would be subtracted from a team that lost as often as not, and holding a dubiously competitive hand in which two starters from Super Bowl XL -- Ike Taylor and Max Starks -- were threatening to play themselves out of the lineup (in training camp, Starks did).

In the less-than-seamless 17-day coaching search that followed, they lost their two primary offensive architects, Ken Whisenhunt and Russ Grimm.

Enter Tomlin.

No head coaching experience.

Never ran a draft.

Never had an inkling of the psychological needs of Steeler Nation, which he still managed to call "awesome" the other night in the minutes after that first playoff loss.

But before we get too far into this, let's defer to one of the handful of opinions that actually matter, which is neither yours nor mine. Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney was reluctant to weigh in yesterday while the players cleaned out their lockers and headed for the offseason, such as it is, cautioning that there is still much information to be gathered, much long-term planning to be discussed.

"The one thing I will say is that Mike did a super job," Rooney said. "If you'd have told us a year ago that we'd win a division championship, have a 10-6 season, we'd have been ecstatic."

But you don't have to go back an entire year to see all that's necessary of the big picture. Go back to Latrobe. The majority of the fan base had virtually ceded the AFC North to Baltimore, with much of the rest having already handed it to Cincinnati. Brian Billick took the superior Ravens only to the edge of the cliff, off of which they threw him. Marvin Lewis took the Bengals backward. Mike Tomlin, the only one of the three to beat Cleveland twice, won the division.

In the seven games Tomlin lost, including Saturday's, only one opponent beat him by more than seven points, and that team, the darlings of Patriot Nation, beat everybody -- everybody! -- and by an average of three touchdowns.

It is correct to say that Tomlin's first team limped to the finish, but only if it's meant literally, and only if it acknowledges other frames of reference. Yes, this team lost four of its last five, but if it was fading so badly, how was it so much a better team Jan. 5 than it was Dec. 16, the first time it lost to Jacksonville? All that separated Tomlin's first team from a playoff victory the other night and a rematch at New England was the want of a decent punt and some accompanying professional coverage. No one can blame Tomlin for not doing everything possible, from the first practice at Latrobe, to ensure that he could get those things. The fact that he couldn't is one of many issues he and the organization have to address between here and September.

For the small picture analysts, Tomlin only became a more focused target as Saturday night wore on. This enduring 2-point yammer is classical rear-view analysis. Sure two PATs would have gotten the Steelers to overtime, which is not the same thing as getting a victory. Both times Tomlin went for 2 -- even from the 12 -- were because one point was patently useless to him at the moment.

The other lingering criticism surrounds the third-down run by Ben Roethlisberger on third-and-6 from the Steelers' 26 with less than three minutes remaining and the home team ahead, 29-28.

Reasonable people can disagree on this call, but when Ben went into the shotgun with two backfield protectors, I remember saying aloud in the press box to no one in particular, "You wanna throw the ball here?"

I sure didn't. He'd already thrown three interceptions.

Further, this play with Ben running left, although I hadn't seen it all year, was run a couple times in practice last week. Each time, the scout team was crashing inside and Ben took it at least 10 yards. This time, Jacksonville played it honest, and Ben, following inexperienced tackle Trai Essex, cut it up field prematurely, gaining only a yard.

Had he gained 6, you probably wouldn't remember Dan Sepulveda's feeble punt, the coverage team's unconscionable effort, and Tomlin would be a genius today.

Again, here's your insider's guide to play-calling analysis:

Play works? Great call.

Play fails? Terrible call.

The difference between Jacksonville and the Steelers in the first round of the playoffs wasn't as wide as this column. Who is to say which specific act or thought, random or calculated, by commission or omission, was the one on which that delicious slice of prime-time theatre ultimately turned?

Couldn't help but notice though, that for the first playoff game in Pittsburgh in three years, there were some 1,500 no-shows.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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