There might not be a Steelers season in the last 20 years as bizarre as the one we are collectively witnessing; the team is 7-6-1 despite not being outwardly good at seemingly anything, other than survival, and still has a realistic chance at dragging itself to an AFC North championship, provided the rest of the division keeps stumbling over itself, as it has done for most of the season.
It’s not tough to evaluate the offense and the defense, neither one of which is pretty good. A pair of eyes are good enough to ascertain that much. A much more confounding thing to try and process is the work Mike Tomlin has done this season.
How does one judge a coach who still makes notable errors, specifically from a game-management perspective, when he’s managed to drag his team to within shouting distance of a division title in a year when many observers – myself included – thought the Steelers would crash and burn because of their own hubris?
Tomlin spoke Tuesday of the Melvin Ingram situation, another lowlight of the season, and repeated – albeit more brusquely than he did in the immediate aftermath of the deal that sent Ingram to the Chiefs for a sixth-round pick – one of his favorite sayings.
“To be quite honest with you and blunt, Melvin no longer wanted to be here,” Tomlin said. “And for us, we prefer volunteers as opposed to hostages, and we believe that that’s a formula that allows us to come together in ways you can’t measure.”
I’m tempted to say a few things in light of that statement; one is that while Tomlin has a reputation as a players’ coach, a leader of men whose charges often rave about his leadership capabilities and businesslike, “treat men like men” approach, he seems to be on a bad run of acquiring veterans who become disgruntled.
LeGarrette Blount, James Harrison, Lance Moore and Ingram have all had ugly ends to their time with the Steelers, and in Ingram’s case, one wonders whether or not it was the result of a personality clash with Tomlin, because while his playing time hasn’t really picked up appreciably – or at all – in Kansas City, he seems much happier there, by his own admission, as well as the words of Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.
The Steelers will have to deal with Ingram this weekend, and Tomlin indicated that knowing they might be helping a future opponent never factored into the decision to move the disgruntled linebacker.
The second thing about Tomlin’s explanation that smells a bit on initial inspection is the endorsement of team chemistry as being pivotally important. That’s a mindset I’ve never really subscribed to, and don’t think holds much water, and yet, in light of what the Steelers have done so far this season, I can only conclude that maybe the man has a point.
How else to explain the fact that this staggering group somehow manages to get back on its feet time and again and outlast seemingly better competition? I might not think that intangible, feel-good vibes are important, but clearly Tomlin does, and the fact that this very mediocre team (whose defense he runs, and whose roster he had a big hand in shaping, I must point out) still has a pulse at least supports his theory to some degree.
If nothing else, this Steelers season proves the value in having a head coach who can keep a team focused on the basic task at hand, despite innumerable distractions along the way. In 2021, that trait is more valuable than ever. Tomlin’s work with the minutiae, with in-game decisions, still leaves much to be desired, but so far I can’t point to a time where that specific shortcoming has turned a win into a loss.
In a macro sense, at least for right now, you have to tip your cap to him. His team has played just well enough, for just long enough, that they might somehow find themselves the last team standing in a division that no one seems to want to win. Their most damaging loss, against the Lions, can’t be pinned completely on him; Mason Rudolph lost that game for the Steelers even more than their putrid run defense did.
I’m not sure Mike Tomlin will push the right buttons to get the Steelers across the finish line in playoff position, but I do think he’ll keep this raggedy, hugely-flawed team from falling apart. And in a bizarre season defined by parity, there’s something to be said for that.
This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Mueller: Mike Tomlin’s 2021 performance defies easy evaluation