For what was either his final pre-camp news conference or his first formal media entanglement of the new Steelers season, depending on where you're stranded in the NFL's perpetual news cycle, Mike Tomlin chose for his background vibe a breezy geniality.
"I'm excited to be here," the second-year coach smiled yesterday, "I missed these warm and fuzzy get-togethers we all have."
As it happens, the Pittsburgh media has come to expect more from Tomlin than a flipping of the worn out warm-and-fuzzy construction. In fact, it's Tomlin's consistent linguistic effort that frames the dynamic between the young coach and his habitual inquisitors.
I loved when he broke out "thoughtfully non-rhythmic" last year to describe his approach to training-camp schedules, and again he flashed his promising aptitude yesterday when, several minutes in, he described former first-round draft pick Lawrence Timmons as having played some "sub package linebacker football" in his rookie season.
Tomlin's consistent effort in his media dealings doesn't necessarily result in the public knowing any more about the why-and-how of backstage Steelers culture than it did during the Bill Cowher or Chuck Noll administrations, but, unlike his decorated predecessors, Tomlin can at least be led into a news conference without appearing as if he's going to a colonoscopy.
One year deep in his working rhythms, the head coach plans no tempo changes with the media.
"I was surprised by the volume of some of the [media] responsibilities," he admitted. "But that's never been my focus, and I always just thought of it as one of the things that comes with the job. I enjoy developing this coaching staff, formulating a plan to win, presenting that plan to the players, and helping them grow collectively and individually. Some of the other things that come with that are necessary evils, but some are pleasant. But, overall, it's fun. I enjoy it."
In his 10-6, AFC North championship inaugural season, Tomlin appeared to be bumped off stride by the media just once, and that was only because Anthony Smith, bored after having mastered the safety position, plunged into the prediction game with a guarantee of victory at New England. Unbeaten New England.
The head coach was nearly incredulous that we'd run with a combustible opinion from a player so young and, uh, callow, but the reality is that no one need provide evidence of good judgment to communicate with the media. Thank God. For us to consider the source in such situations and weigh the value of observations appropriately before dissemination would be dangerously close to logical and even responsible. This isn't to suggest Tomlin was himself callow in that situation, but logic and responsibility are two passengers that got booted off the sports media train somewhere around 1984.
For most of his first full media lap then, Tomlin has been crisp, professional, patient, reasonably accommodating and even illuminating up to a point where he's comfortable, which, while no synonym for full disclosure, still represents a welcome change from the aforementioned administrations.
Cowher arrived at the job in the midst of a newspaper strike, not experiencing the media at full working temperature until nearly a year later and never growing fully comfortable in media matters. His instant success gave him a pronounced swagger, bringing with it a sharp impatience with questions he thought less than perceptive. By his final year, he had cut his assistants off from the media and his press sessions were clipped and of little evident purpose to either party.
Noll had a barely concealed contempt for the media, which he considered an unregulated delivery system of misinformation that, if not a verifiable impediment to winning, certainly couldn't help him. Still, he had a huge intellect and a blistering wit that commanded attention.
Once, at training camp, he was asked if a particular player would soon be returning from an injury. "Well, doctors say it would take an average person six weeks to recover from that," Noll said, "and Chris fits into that category."
Tomlin has not reached the point in his media dealings that he's answering just to answer and, if that answer camouflages the truth, so much the better. The best evidence yet might have come yesterday when he fielded questions about the Rooney ownership drama straight on, saying that it is an issue, that it is a potential distraction, and that it's up to him and the team to compartmentalize it properly.
Most coaches either ignore or publicly minimize even perceived mental obstacles, but Tomlin did his best to reveal his feelings about it, restating his trust in the Rooneys and, at the same time, acknowledging the existence of potentially destabilizing karma.
With what many imagine will be continued success, Tomlin's media posture could well become more guarded, a tradeoff most fans wouldn't exactly lament. But, for the moment, the veiled sarcasm of warm and fuzzy will do.
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.