Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, the Steelers @ 4-6 & Two Different and Correct Decisions

4-6 is a curious mark for an NFL team.

Clearly, no coach or player wears 4-6 like a badge of honor. But if the balance between 4-6 is weighted a little too heavily towards Bill Cowher’s “Fine line between winning and losing,” it also proves that that line is indeed fine.

  • Double digits, while improbable, in either column remain legitimate possibilities.

Which brings us to the 2013 Pittsburgh Steelers and, yes, their 1989 predecessors. Mike Tomlin’s current edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers record stands at 4-6 after ten games. Chuck Noll’s ’89 edition also held a 4-6 record.

Amidst the full glow of the Steelers victory over the Lions, their second consecutive victory, a reporter asked Mike Tomlin, indirectly, about the Steelers playoff chances.  “I won’t play ball” retorted the Tomlinator.

  • Tomlin’s response was the correct one

In contrast, the 1989 Steelers arrived at their 4-6 record with a head wind formed by an embarrassing loss to Denver, and their third shut out of the year suffered vs. Chicago. During his weekly press conference reporters asked Chuck Noll if he was content to write of the season as a rebuilding year. “No” The Emperor deadpanned, the Steelers would gun for the playoffs. Period.

  • Noll’s reponse was also the correct one

Now let’s find out why.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Then and Now

The reason why both coaches can correctly make different decisions facing the same situation lies in the role that attitude plays in forming a football team.

Chuck Noll had 4 Lombardi’s in the bag but the association of words like “contender” or even “champion” were distant memories. The Steelers hadn’t even been to the playoffs since 1984. Dwayne Woodruff was the lone hold out from the Super Steelers.

  • Aside from Woodruff, Noll could count on one hand his playoff veterans. 

For the record, they were Tunch Ilkin, Louis Lipps, Keith Willis, Bryan Hinkle, and David Little.

To put that into context, imagine that Ike Taylor was the longest tenured player for the Steelers. Imagine the Steelers, with Chad Pennington as their starting quarterback, losing the 2008 AFC Championship to a Ben Roethlisberger led Denver Broncos team. (After upsetting John Elway at Mile High, Noll’s ’84 Steelers lost to Dan Marino’s Dolphins).

Imagine that from that ’08 team all that remain are Rashard Mendenhall, Brett Keisel, Larry Foote, Marvel Smith, and James Harrison.

This was a young team, a team that no one expected to do anything. Yet Noll believed in them, and he told them that even after they’d lost their first two games by a combined score of 92-10. (As documented by Behind the Steel Curtain’s Michael Bean.)

  • By affirming their goal of reaching the playoffs, Noll was giving his team a reason to believe in themselves.

Mike Tomlin’s got a different task. He inherited a team where Super Bowls measure success. He’s got more Super Bowl ring holders than Noll had playoff veterans.

  • But for all that, Tomlin’s got his own demons to fight.

Too often, Tomlin teams have played down to the competition (Raiders game, ’12 or ’13 version anyone?) Add to that mix a group of young players that still need to learn how to win games.

Brett Keisel’s comments last year following the Baltimore game about younger players needed to understand that it was no time to let up are particular instructive, especially when you consider just how badly the Steelers laid an egg vs. San Diego last season.

Chuck Noll needed to put the promised land on the horizon for the 1989 Steelers. They needed a far-reaching in sight to drive them through their remaining six games.

Tomlin’s Steelers, in contrast, are the driver that has a nasty habit of rear-ending the car in front of him, and therefore cannot look at billboards so they stay firmly focused on the road.

Two coaches, same situation, same franchise, opposition decisions. Yet both are right.

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2 thoughts on “Mike Tomlin, Chuck Noll, the Steelers @ 4-6 & Two Different and Correct Decisions

  1. Bottom line, the current Steelers need a swift kick in the butt, while the ’89 Steelers needed a reason to believe and a chance to get better. What I loved about Noll was his ability to motivate his players by, in his own words “showing them how to get the job done.” Not taking Tomlin doesn’t do that. I think his direction with his team is the right one to take, and someday, we might be talking about him as a Hall of Famer. Great stuff as always, KT.

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