When the wisp of white smoke dissipated from the gray sky above the home of Steelers owner Dan Rooney, it was the dawn of a new era for Pittsburgh fans. Nothing against either Russ Grimm or Ken Whisenhunt, but naming a longtime assistant coach to replace Bill Cowher as head coach would have meant asking him to be a mere caretaker. The Mike Tomlin hiring, though, is the mark of a team looking to 2008 and beyond with fresh, young eyes. It's either a really bold move or a reckless one, depending on whom you ask. I've decided that I agree with Vince Lombardi: Fortune favors the bold.
Not everything is new, though. Coach Tomlin has already made some decisions that are playing well in the Mon Valley, the Alle-Kiski Valley and any other valley you can think of in Western Pennsylvania. He's retained Dick LeBeau as defensive coordinator and promoted wideouts coach Bruce Arians to offensive coordinator.
Neither the optimists nor the naysayers among us will have a scintilla of a notion how it will all work until this Halloween, at the very earliest. In the meantime, I'd like to welcome Mike Tomlin with a gift basket that may help him as head coach of the Steelers:
-- Acceptance of the fact that he follows in the line of great head coaches, and that he'll be judged accordingly. During Bill Cowher's first two years here, a close friend worked at the Downtown YMCA, where Cowher played racquetball weekly. My friend had Cowher sign a birthday card for her mother -- cute idea, right? Only her mother refused the card, because it wasn't signed by the Emperor, Chaz Noll. These are some big shoes to fill, so coach Tomlin will need patience to woo the fans over the long haul. On the bright side, it only took Bill Cowher about 14 years.
-- The courage to make this team his own, even while retaining part of the Cowher brain trust. It can start with cutting a few of the more unproductive veterans on his squad. A few numbers that should be available to players in the 2007 campaign: 17, 21, 34 and 80. And, Coach Tomlin, 22 is already available, if you didn't know.
-- From his predecessor, Bill Cowher, encyclopedic knowledge of NFL rules. Then again, it never helps to embarrass the officials by berating them. So along with this gift, he'll also need ...
-- From his mentor, Tony Dungy, the gift of talking to game officials so reasonably it would put most kindergarten teachers to shame. Tomlin should take the moral high ground and revel in the self-righteous certitude of being more knowledgeable than the officials. It is its own reward. It seems to take officials aback when Dungy calls them over and calmly says, "I think that receiver was bobbling the ball. I don't think he had possession. I'm challenging. Get back to me on that, OK?" It's always fun to keep officials guessing, so Tomlin should think Tony Dungy, not Mike Holmgren.
-- The gift that keeps on ticking: excellent clock-management skills. Nothing is worse than seeing a coach mismanage the clock or waste timeouts. In short, if the game is on the line and time is of the essence, Tomlin should just think of what Philadelphia's Andy Reid would do .... and do the exact opposite. Call it the Costanza Rule.
-- A complete compendium of original football clichés for 2007. Bill Cowher was fond of "smashmouth" and "it's a fine line." Coach Tomlin's already dropped the "blue collar" line on us. You have to wonder whether that will be a theme, or whether he'll come up with some fresh metaphors. The whole point of bringing in a guy from outside the organization was to breathe new life into it, so I certainly hope that we haven't seen the best of Coach Tomlin in terms of his press-conference clichés. He can do better than "blue collar."
-- A thick skin, particularly if he doesn't begin next season by ripping off several wins. Fans are always quick to blame the head coach, regardless of the circumstances of a loss. I just hope Tomlin has a thick skin -- and that the criticism lobbed at him is never based on its color.