It’s comforting to see the Pittsburgh Steelers back atop the NFL.
In a topsy-turvy world that’s gone completely off the rails in 2020, the franchise that hardly ever changes coaches — the great Mike Tomlin is their third in 52 seasons — and clings to the “Steeler Way” no matter the era is just what we needed.
Pittsburgh has become only the 12th team in the Super Bowl age to start a season 11-0, providing a welcome dose of stability amid the chaos of positive tests and rescheduled games and eerily quiet stadiums.
Frankly, the Steelers haven’t been all that impressive in building their perfect record, but that’s OK.
Those familiar black-and-gold uniforms, with the iconic logo on just one side of the helmet, are like a warm, reassuring blanket, helping us cope with the grimmest of winters.
If there’s one thing we’ve always been able to count on, it’s the Steelers.
A single family, the Rooneys, has owned the franchise since its founding in 1933. With the hiring of Chuck Noll in 1969, the Steelers embarked on an era of unprecedented equilibrium even as the league — and the world — changed greatly all around them.
Noll coached the Steelers for 23 years, winning four Super Bowl titles before his retirement. Bill Cowher took over in 1992 and added another championship to the ledger during his 15-year reign. Then the torch was passed to Tomlin, who was just 34 years old with a single season as a coordinator on his resume when he landed the job. He’s been to a pair of Super Bowls, becoming the youngest coach and second Black coach to win the title during the 2008 season.
Compare that with any other franchise in the NFL — or any other major league sport, for that matter.
The rival Cleveland Browns have employed more head coaches in the past three seasons than the Steelers have had in the last 52. In all, the Browns have gone through 21 coaches since 1969 (and they were dormant for three seasons after the original team moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens).
For those NFL teams that were around at the end of the ’60s, the Dallas Cowboys have employed the next-fewest number of coaches since then with nine — largely because of Tom Landry’s reign.
As with his two predecessors, Tomlin’s hiring was an inspired one. While he is often overlooked when the league’s top coaches are ranked, there is little doubt that he’s as good as anyone not named Belichick. Any discussion of the Steelers’ sustained success must begin with Tomlin — a gritty, no-nonsense leader who is perfect for this team and its blue-collar city.
“He’s one of the greatest coaches I ever worked for,” said Raheem Morris, interim head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, who spent a couple of seasons with Tomlin when both were assistants at Tampa Bay many years ago. “If you don’t see the benefits of him being the coach of that football team, shame on you. He comes every day with the same mentality, the same approach, which is greatness.”
Tomlin is the epitome of the “Steeler Way,” which essentially comes down to sticking with those you hire for the long haul, drafting wisely, developing your picks, and rarely splurging in free agency. If you’re stirring up trouble in the locker room, you won’t be around for long — no matter how talented you might be. Antonio Brown learned that lesson the hard way.
In general, there’s not a lot of turnover from year to year, which was especially useful during this most unusual of seasons. With offseason workouts scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Steelers were able to cope better than most teams. They weren’t breaking in a bunch of new players. They didn’t have to adjust to a new coach or widespread changes to the staff.
Even now, when the Steelers are in the midst of playing three games in 12 days because of schedule changes forced by COVID-19, they don’t seem flustered.
“I turned from being upset, because you’re so dialed in, to it just being funny, like ‘OK, whatever now,’” quarterback and MVP candidate Ben Roethlisberger said Friday. “Whatever they tell us to do, just go play.”
Noll’s first three seasons ended with losing records as he built up what had been a woebegone franchise into one of the league’s greatest dynasties, winning four Super Bowl titles in a six-year period.
Longer-lasting was the framework he established that seemed to ensure the Steelers would never go through an extended period of losing. Pittsburgh has finished .500 or better in 42 of the past 49 seasons. Only twice over that timeframe have the Steelers endured as many as two straight losing campaigns (1985-86 under Noll, 1998-99 under Cowher).
The Steelers missed the playoffs the last two seasons, which put Tomlin on a bit of a hot seat to avoid their first three-year drought since 1998-2000. Naturally, his team responded with the greatest start in franchise history.
Which is not to say they’ve been overpowering. The Steelers went down to the last play against the Cowboys and fill-in quarterback Garrett Gilbert. They went down to the last possession against the underwhelming Denver Broncos. They struggled Wednesday to hold off a Baltimore team missing its MVP quarterback and ravaged by COVID-19.
In the end, this season will be remembered for the final game. Even if the Steelers become only the second team go unbeaten in a 16-game regular season, they won’t be judged a success unless they’re holding up the Lombardi Trophy for the first time in a dozen seasons.
That’s the Steeler Way.
If their Super Bowl aspirations don’t pan out, Pittsburgh will surely be right back in the thick of the things next season.
That’s the Steeler Way, too.
In a wacky world, there’s something comforting in that.
Paul Newberry is a sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry196 His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.