One second Sunday night, Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward was standing outside the team bus at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, saying how coach Mike Tomlin had "done wonders" for this later stage of his fabulous career by excusing him from Wednesday practices and saving his legs. The next second, Tomlin, appearing almost out of nowhere, was right there, listening to every word. Hey, at least Ward was saying nice things about the boss.
"I was just talking about you, coach," Ward said, somewhat sheepishly. "I'm going to keep propping you up so you can do this until you're 40!" Tomlin roared.
An hour earlier, Ward had been a big star in the Steelers' remarkable 13-9, back-from-the-dead victory against the Ravens with eight catches for 107 yards.
"I appreciate it, coach," Ward said.
"A few more years and I'll just make you show up on Fridays," Tomlin said, grinning, before the two headed into the wonderful night as AFC North Division champions.
Are you thinking what I'm thinking?
That Tomlin just might keep Ward going until he's 40, marvelous roll that Tomlin is on?
Can you say NFL coach of the year?
Certainly, Tomlin's name is in that conversation. Despite the league's toughest schedule and significant injuries to starters Willie Parker, Marvel Smith, Kendall Simmons, Brett Keisel and Bryant McFadden, the Steelers are 11-3 and will play the Tennessee Titans Sunday for, in all likelihood, the top seed in the AFC playoffs. It's not at all difficult to imagine the Steelers winning two playoff games at Heinz Field and stepping right into Super Bowl XLIII.
That's some coaching.
"I've seen him grow," veteran linebacker and undisputed team leader James Farrior said of Tomlin.
"He's more comfortable with his ballclub now," Ward said.
"He's changed his approach quite a bit," safety Troy Polamalu said.
A year ago, Tomlin still was trying to find his way as a first-time head coach. He had inherited a veteran team -- one year removed from a Super Bowl title -- from longtime coach Bill Cowher. Of course, he had to find his way.
The 2007 Steelers started 9-3 and won the AFC North but faded badly down the stretch, losing three of their final four games and another to the Jacksonville Jaguars in a first-round playoff game at home.
"We all ran out of gas," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said.
"We practiced really, really hard at the end of the season," Polamalu said. "All season, actually, from training camp on. We were really beat down."
Tomlin learned. All the smart ones do. He no longer had to show the players he was the boss. They understood.
Tomlin has scaled down his practices this season. Often, he sends the players out during the week without their shoulder pads, much to their delight. They still work hard, but there isn't that sapping intensity that is best saved for Sundays. He also began giving veteran players such as Ward an extra day off each week.
"You never win a game on Wednesday," Ward said. "I'm going into the games 100 percent. You're seeing the results."
Not just with Ward.
With the team.
The Steelers have won five games in a row, the past three against rugged competition -- the Ravens, Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. They outscored the Patriots, 23-0, in the second half. They scored 17 fourth-quarter points to beat the Cowboys. They scored the final 10 points to beat the Ravens.
"Steelers football is 60 minutes," Tomlin gushed to his happy players as they made it back to the locker room after the game Sunday.
A little later, Tomlin told the media, "I think it speaks to the football character of our team. There were several reasons and instances when the faint of heart would have let go of the rope in that football game. They didn't. Hopefully, it's a window to what we are capable of. We'll see as we go forward."
The man really does have a kinder, gentler side.
Of course, that doesn't mean Tomlin can't be tough when the situation demands it.
At training camp this season, Tomlin very publicly made his displeasure known with overweight nose tackle Casey Hampton. It didn't matter that the player nicknamed Big Snack was a Pro Bowler; Tomlin put him on the physically-unable-to-perform list until he rounded into shape.
Just last week, Tomlin firmly handled a potential crisis with Parker, who had complained to the media that the team had gotten away from "Steelers football" by not running the ball enough. Parker also second-guessed the two-tight end, no-fullback system that offensive coordinator Bruce Arians prefers in running situations.
Parker's timing was lousy.
The Steelers were 10-3 and headed into their biggest game of the season against the Ravens, their top division rival.
Tomlin let Parker know he didn't appreciate it.
"The issue for us has been, is and hopefully will continue to be winning -- that's my interpretation of Steelers football," Tomlin said after practice Thursday at the season's most memorable news conference. "Every morning when I come to work, I walk past five Lombardis, not five rushing titles. The issue is winning."
Asked about the effectiveness of Arians' run-game offense in light of Parker's comments, Tomlin said, "It was working pretty good last year when [Parker] was leading the league in rushing before he was hurt."
But the story doesn't end there.
When Tomlin reinstated Hampton near the end of the preseason, he made it a point to stress how valuable the big fella was to the Steelers' defense. And before the game Sunday, he told Parker that he wanted him as one of his captains that day.
In both cases, it was Tomlin's way of saying, "We might fuss and fight as a family now and then, but we're all in this together. We have to be together. We can do great things as one."
Farrior isn't alone.
We've all watched Tomlin grow.
Ron Cook can be reached at email@example.com .