When Mike Tomlin was hired in 2007 by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was a surprise choice for a job that had been thought to be going to one of two strong, internal candidates. When Russ Grimm, then the offensive line coach, and Ken Whisenhunt, the offensive coordinator, were passed over by the Rooney family in favor of Tomlin, many weren't sure what it meant.
As it turns out, it meant that the Steelers would go on to play in two Super Bowls in the first five years of Tomlin's tenure and would win one of those championship contests.
It would also mean that, after 2010, the team would slowly begin a decline that has begun to really show on the team's roster and in the results.
Here's a look at the rise and fall of Mike Tomlin's team.
Mike Tomlin took over a team in 2007 that had just finished a listless 8-8 season under Bill Cowher, who looked ready to retire after finally winning a Super Bowl the season before.
While a good coaching staff was in place, the team seemed to need a fresh face at the top to motivate it back to being a great team. The absence of motivation to give Jerome Bettis and Cowher a long-desired championship had sapped the team of mental strength.
That changed when Tomlin took charge. He immediately put a tough system in place that emphasized conditioning and attention to detail.
Unhindered by any kind of attachment to players or staff, Tomlin showed immediately that he could make the tough decisions. He placed Casey Hampton on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list when he showed up to training camp in poor shape.
He also showed no quarter to players who made mistakes. His "news" portions of meetings that covered mistakes made in practice or games became a fun topic of conversation among fans and helped bring accountability to the locker room once again.
Tomlin's first team finished 10-6, won the AFC North, and lost in the wild card round of the playoffs. The team survived the departure of left guard Alan Faneca and continual ribbing about the offensive line to improve to 12-4 the following season.
With Ben Roethlisberger starting all 16 games, Pittsburgh won a second-consecutive division title and returned to the Super Bowl.
Mike Tomlin became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl at age 36 when Pittsburgh defeated the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 in a thrilling game.
At that point, Mike Tomlin was the king of Pittsburgh. More Super Bowls were predicted and the term "stairway to seven" was coined to replace the "one for the thumb" phrase satisfied in 2005.
The Intervening Year and One, Big Run
The 2009 season was a step backward for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Mike Tomlin, who couldn't recreate the magic of 2008 and finished 9-7, missing the playoffs on tiebreakers. It was the first time a Mike Tomlin-coached team hadn't reached the postseason.
The problems seemed to be a general lack of motivation and players who suddenly just weren't on top of their games. In that regard, it resembled 2006. The question became whether a Pittsburgh team could repeat as champions the way they had in 1975 and 1979.
Tomlin preached calmness and in 2010, the team made a small free-agent splurge with old guard guys Antwaan Randle El and Larry Foote and some other additions. While not breaking the bank, the contracts and extensions handed out during that uncapped season would come back to haunt the usually cap-friendly Steelers.
With the roster loaded for a run at the title in 2010, Tomlin and his staff set to work. Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, embattled after a poor showing in 2009, brought a pass-heavy scheme that favored Ben Roethlisberger and abandoned the run-oriented days of old.
The Steelers overcame every difficulty and Tomlin did perhaps his finest job in Pittsburgh as the Steelers returned to contention with a 12-4 record and a division title. Pittsburgh rolled through the playoffs by beating the Baltimore Ravens and New York Jets.
In the Super Bowl, Pittsburgh suddenly became prone to turnovers on offense and the defense couldn't slow Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers offense. Pittsburgh narrowly missed their seventh title and Tomlin's second when a late rally fell short.
In 2011, the Pittsburgh Steelers were expected to remain a tough contender and AFC North favorite. Despite injuries and an offense that decayed badly in the scoring department, the team overcame a slow start to finish tied with Baltimore's Ravens for the division title.
Tebow and Denver pulled off the unthinkable by taking the Pittsburgh Steelers to overtime and defeating them with one offensive play. The victory was shattering and sent Pittsburgh home empty.
In 2012, Pittsburgh aging roster and listless performances caught up with them as they lost to four teams with losing records and couldn't overcome injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall among other stars.
Finishing 8-8, the first non-winning season under Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh now sits in a questionable position as both coach and team are evaluated for future prospects.
For Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers to return to prominence and contention again, they must get younger, get less expensive and more cap-friendly and pay more attention to detail.
For Tomlin, he's lucky to be working for bosses and an organization that are patient and understanding. They see the bigger picture. But Tomlin doesn't have forever to turn around the team's fortunes. A few years more like 2012 and Tomlin will find himself where no Pittsburgh coach since Bill Austin has been—on the hot seat.
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