With four games remaining now in the 2010 regular season, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin should really be in the pole position for the NFL head coach of the year honors. Before the season ever began, the Steelers were faced with adversity as starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was facing a minimum of a four game suspension. During training camp and preseason Tomlin was criticized for the handling of the back-up quarterback rotation and playing time. In the final preseason game against the Panthers, number two quarterback Byron Leftwich suffered an MCL injury to his knee that would sideline him for several weeks as well. Tomlin was forced to start the season with the inexperienced Dennis Dixon under center and he lasted all of about a game and a half before tearing up his knee as well. The Steelers were then forced to go with veteran Charlie Batch under center until Roethlisberger returned after the bye week against the Browns.
Another problem the Steelers faced before training camp started was the loss of starting right tackle Willie Colon to an Achilles injury. The Steelers were forced to sign the aging ex-Cowboys free agent left tackle Flozell Adams and let him slowly make the transition to the right tackle spot. The emergence of rookie first round draft pick Maurkice Pouncey in training camp also forced Tomlin to start a rookie center on the line heading into week 1 of the 2010 season.
By the time Roethlisberger returned for the week 6 Browns game, things were starting to look up as the Steelers were 3-1 and very well could of been 4-0 if not for a last minute loss to the Ravens in week 4. The coaching job he did through the first four games after even more injuries had struck two starters on the offensive line should win him the coach of the year award in itself. After the win against the Browns, Tomlin had a new set of distractions to deal with as linebacker James Harrison was now under the microscope for hits in the game against Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi. Harrison was fined heavily and even had thoughts of retirement for a day until Tomlin was able to settle him down. Several Harrison more hits and fines have since followed, but Tomlin has handled it gracefully and the team has rallied behind Harrison and not let it become a distraction.
Injuries struck again through the weeks since the Browns game as left defensive end Aaron Smith suffered a triceps tear, right defensive end Brett Keisel missed several weeks with hamstring and calf problems and starting left tackle Max Starks was lost for the season with a serious neck injury. Following an embarrassing loss to the Patriots at home, Tomlin had the guts to cut veteran kicker Jeff Reed for his recent inconstancy and post game tirade against the fans and management. He signed a street free agent kicker and moved on. Tomlin and his coaching staff juggled the depth perfectly and the Steelers came out of their first 11 games with an 8-3 record.
Heading into the week 13 rematch against the Ravens, the Steelers were still guaranteed nothing even at 8-3. What they still needed was a win against the Ravens in their own house to have a shot with 4 games left of winning the AFC North and perhaps a chance at a first round bye. Roethlisberger broke his nose in the first offensive series, but never missed a snap. Starting punter Daniel Sepulveda tore his knee up again and that newly signed street free agent kicker, Shaun Suisham, was forced to punt the rest of the game. Also lost in the second half was starting tight end Heath Miller to another questionable hit that was not flagged and Adams went down with a high ankle sprain. Tomlin managed to come out of the hard fought game with a 13-10 win and the AFC North lead. They currently control their own fate now as far as a first round bye goes in addition.
There have been several other minor bumps I have not even mentioned, but it goes without saying that not many coaches would have been able to guide the ship through all of the rough patches this season like Tomlin has. Baring a total collapse with 4 weeks to go in the season, the Steelers will be headed back to the playoffs after missing them in 2009. Regardless of how long or short of run they have in the playoffs, Tomlin surely has to be talked about as the Coach of the Year in the NFL. If asked about his coaching performance this year, Tomlin would likely use one of his famous Tomlinisms and tell you that, “the standard is the standard”. I will end this piece with another one of his Tomlinisms and say Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has performed, “well above the line”. If he does not win all of the major Coach of the Year Awards, it will be a travesty.