On the sidelines, Mike Tomlin is anything but stoic. The cameras and microphones frequently capture that. In fact some have argued he gets too emotionally invested in games and fails to let strategy be his guide instead of his heart or his gut.


But away from the sidelines “stoic” is a fair label. And if you prefer a different adjective with a less negative tone: polished…calculated…rhythmic…robotic…nonplused…precise. Sure. Any of those work too.

That’s why when reports came out that Tomlin had tears in eyes in the locker room after Pittsburgh’s 23-16 season ending playoff loss in Denver Sunday, it was tough to believe. We hadn’t heard that kind of conversation after his first year when the team lost at home in the playoffs. Nor did we hear such discussion after his club was shockingly gutted by Tim Tebow to end the ‘11-’12 season. Heck, there didn’t even seem to be much sign of sadness after the Super Bowl loss to Green Bay!

But if you saw Tomlin’s season ending press conference Wednesday, you may have picked up on some residue of that emotional let down from the Denver loss. Want a few more adjectives for Mike Tomlin which were fit to describe him during that half hour Q&A? How about: wistful…introspective…reflective.

And here’s another one…sad.

We’ve seen Mike Tomlin react a bunch of ways when questioned by the media over the last nine years. He’s been defensive. He’s been dismissive. He’s been curt.

But I don’t know if I’ve ever seen him this…what’s the word I’m looking for, here…human?!

Tomlin began his 2015 season wrap up with an unscripted six minute monologue thanking everyone from the Rooney family to the travel support staff. He also included a verbal thank you card to the fan base, seizing on the “#SteelerNation” monicker, by emphasizing how impressed he was when so many of the organization’s fans took over the stands in San Diego as the Steelers won in the final seconds earlier in the campaign.

“The type of support we got…was amazing. And boy didn’t we need it,” Tomlin said with his voice actually breaking a little bit. “We don’t take it for granted. We appreciate it. It inspires us.”

Why was this Denver loss so difficult to take? How come it was affecting Tomlin so clearly half a week after the fact when he seemed to compartmentalize a Super Bowl defeat in Dallas before he even got showered?

The Steelers did overcome a lot. Much of it “self inflicted”, as Tomlin said with a smile a few moments later. The pot suspensions and some of the upset losses absolutely qualify as that.

But the vast expanse of injuries weren’t the Steelers fault. Neither was the tough schedule.
So maybe Tomlin feels particularly attached to this club because it so clearly sums up a lot of the traits he holds dear. This 2015 group actually brought to life some of the mechanical cliches he likes to spit out: “Next man up…Iron sharpens iron…A team of been there, done that guys.” These 2015 Steelers truly embodied those sayings and put “the Tomlin” in “Tomlinisms.”

Or maybe Tomlin just feels jipped. He had a good team that caught a couple late breaks and was on the verge of the AFC championship game when it lost its best WR to a cheap shot from a dirty player. And its QB got his shoulder hurt by the same guy. And his 5th string running back finally made a mistake with a costly fumble.

And maybe that just hurt more than getting skunked by Aaron Rodgers five years ago.

Steeler fans seem to acknowledge that this team paddled hard upstream for the most part this season. A lack of angst and outrage over this playoff exit has been deafening in its silence from the majority of this fan base. Calls for firings, or releases, or trades have been mollified and replaced with expressions of thanks and encouragement. But Tomlin didn’t sound like a person who is taking comfort in gratitude for “giving it your best shot.”

“I’m disappointed. I think we all are,” Tomlin said. “We appreciate the support we get from others. The acknowledgement of the fight and all that. But we go into the journey with that understanding. That it is going to be difficult. That there is going to be a fight. We appreciate the support but at the same time, when we said ‘to be world champions is our goal’ we meant it. And it isn’t us this year. So there is disappointment associated with that.”


If Tomlin does have an equal when it comes to putting out an emotionless facade for the media amongst his players, it’s Heath Miller. The veteran tight end plays with as much heart as anyone on the team, but when he speaks you sometimes wonder if he has a pulse. Yet even he had some water welling up in his eyes when describing the end to the season

“That Cincinnati game (on 12/13) at their place on the road. We binded together as a group and fought together. It wasn’t about individuals. It was about getting the win,” said Miller quietly. “At that point I thought we had something special.”

It seems safe to say that Tomlin felt the same way. And it was refreshingly different of him to let us notice.

Posted in Pittsburgh Steelers