Mike Tomlin Sets Tone for 2013 Steelers with No Golf Carts, Full Contact Practices

In the late 1990’s something happened in Pittsburgh that had not occurred since Chuck Noll agonized over whether not to start Mark Malone or not to start David Woodley. Surely you remember that, right?

Neither do I. At least not too much. Such “quarterback controversies” obviously missed the sports pages during adolescence which was spent in the DC area at the height of the Joe Gibbs era.

And what was this momentous event you ask?

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers suffered back-to-back losing seasons.

During the 1998 and 1999 seasons Kordell Stewart’s growing pains, a series of draft-misfires on offensive lineman (and wide receivers), and a simmering feud between Tom Donahoe and Bill Cowher resulted in the Steelers their first back-to-back losing seasons since the Apple IIc was hottest tech gadget.

Those consecutive losing seasons cost Donahoe his job and brought Kevin Colbert back to Pittsburgh, and on the eve of that first Colbert-era training camp  my friend Mike, a patron of Baltimore’s legendary Purple Goose Saloon, thought we had a solution.

  • Take a way the golf carts

That’s right.

In either the summer of 1994 or 1995 (new search limitations of Google News archives make it hard to tell) Bill Cowher created a minor stir when he convinced Dan Rooney to provide players with golf carts to shuttle them to and from practices during training camp. Reporters told their readers how remarkable this was but the development was quickly accepted as part of Steelers summers at St. Vincents.

The internet was in its infancy then, or else I suspect the reaction in Steelers Nation might have been a little louder. Remember, fan protest had reversed Cowher’s attempt to move the Steelers bench to the sunny side of Three Rivers Stadium. And, after all this was and remains the team with no cheerleaders and a decal on only one side of the helmet.

A dozen or so years later (yes, makes me feel old to say it) Mike Tomlin has stolen a sheet from the Pittsburgh Steelers Fan Club of Maryland.

  • For the first time since the early 1990’s there will be no golf carts at St. Vincents.

It says here that Cowher’s Steelers went to Super Bowl XXX and ultimately victory in Super Bowl XL and no one in Steelers Nation said, “And to think, the guys were though enough to do this, in spite of the golf carts that took them from the dorms to the practice fields at St. Vincents.”

Likewise, Tomlin’s teams have won Super Bowl XLIII and lost Super Bowl XLV respectively by a hair, golf carts not withstanding.

  • But Mike Tomlin is still making a right move.

The attitude behind our “No golf carts at St. Vincent’s” during  the summer of ’00 was simply that the golf carts were fine for a team of seasoned playoff veterans, but perhaps should be a perk to be earned.

  • The same logic applies here, only this time Tomlin is following through on it.

Tomlin, of course balks at the notion that his training camp changes have anything to do with the inopportune moments that plagued the 2012 Steelers. “Last year is last year, this year is this year.”

Tomlin loves saying that. The changes are completely irrelevant. Yeah, and the fact that Bruce Springsteen’s first marriage was falling apart had nothing to do with multiple metaphors for marriage gone sour in his seminal work Tunnel of Love.

The 2012 Steelers, absent locker room leaders like Hines Ward, James Farrior, and Aaron Smith, were simply too inconsistent and too undisciplined at times.

But taking away the golf carts is a symbolic move, Tomlin’s made another move that’s both substantive and riskier

  • Live, tackling during full contact practices.

This later development was last seen in the hey day of Chuck Noll, according to any number of Steelers beat reporters.

Lest Steelers Nation tire itself out pumping their fists in approval, full contact in practice is not what the Dr. ordered for a team with an already precarious injury situation.

  • But Tomlin’s move is nonetheless the right one.

The decision to go full-contact, full pads is yet another calculated risk the team is taking heading into 2013. But time and time again, Mike Tomlin refuses to coach scared.

As Steel Curtain Rising observed earlier, it is no longer a question of whether the Steelers 2012 draft class, 2013 draft class, and the respective undrafted free agent rookie classes will win starting jobs at St. Vincent’s.

They will win them, because veterans such as James Harrison, Max Starks, Keenan Lewis, and Willie Colon are playing elsewhere.

But by holding full-contact practices Tomlin is sending a message to a team in transition:

  • Even though you may end up winning these starting jobs, you’re still going to earn them by the sweat of your brow.

So far one of the few players to endorse Tomlin’s approach is Ben Roethlisberger – who can’t get hit. That means the rest of the team is grinning and bearing it.

Which is exactly the reaction Steelers Nation should hope to see.

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