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Mike Tomlin Reveals His Toughest Season as Head Coach



Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin as the Steelers played against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. (Mitchell Northam / Steelers Now)
Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin as the Steelers played against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, Dec. 18, 2022 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. (Mitchell Northam / Steelers Now)

Mike Tomlin has not had a losing season during his 16-year tenure in Pittsburgh, but if there was a year where it looked like things were heading to a sub-.500 campaign, the 2019 season is the first one that comes to mind. You could throw the 2013 and 2022 seasons in there as well, but the quarterback situation in 2019 was absolutely grim.

Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2, which put the Steelers in uncharted territory as it was the first time that Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending injury in his career. Mason Rudolph took over the reins at quarterback but ended up losing his starting spot during the Week 12 game against the Cincinnati Bengals to undrafted free agent Devlin “Duck” Hodges. Hodges led the Steelers to a win against Cincinnati and wins against Cleveland and Arizona in the following weeks, but he flamed out at the end of the year, and the Steelers lost their final three games to finish the season at 8-8 and not eligible for the postseason.

During a recent episode of the L3 Leadership Podcast, Doug Smith asked Mike Tomlin if there was a season where he faced the most adversity, and Tomlin said without a doubt the 2019 season.

“I think the 2019 season will always standout for me, professionally speaking,” Tomlin said. “Ben got hurt in the second game, and we got faced with a lot of challenges from a player availability standpoint. It took us a while to kind of gain our traction and find the new normal if you will, and find a way to do our jobs. You know, I tell my guys all the time, ‘Football is our game, our business is winning.’ Because sometimes when you are not handling business, you can hate the game of football, and I never want our guys to hate the game of football. I got a love affair with football. It’s always been great to me. Sometimes when I’m not winning enough, it’s not as fun. I think the challenges that we faced in ’19 and that specifically I faced in terms of shepherding or leading the group through the things that we faced was an awesome growth experience for me professionally.”

Even with Roethlisberger out for the season, the Steelers traded a first-round pick to the Miami Dolphins for free safety Minkah Fitzpatrick on Sept. 18. It was an extremely rare move for the Steelers, as it left the franchise without a first-round pick for the first time since 1967. The trade was an instant success, however, as Fitzpatrick recorded an interception and forced fumble in his first game against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 3. Fitzpatrick ended up making the Pro Bowl and was named first-team All-Pro in his first season in Pittsburgh. The defense overall was also a dominant unit in 2019, ranking fifth in total yards allowed (300.6), sixth in points allowed (18.9), third in passing defense (194.6), 14th in run defense (109.6) No. 1 in takeaways (38), and No. 1 in sacks (54).

The defense clearly carried the Steelers to an 8-8 season in 2019, but it’s still remarkable that Tomlin got his unit to reach that feat given the quarterback situation. Tomlin often says that if his team doesn’t face adversity early in the season, he creates it. He believes that adversity is always a growth opportunity.

“I had a coach that used to say, ‘We win and we learn.’ Meaning that there’s something to be gleaned when you’re not successful and if you’re committed to what it is that you do, you’ll seek those things out. I think that’s a mindset that I share. I’ve learned to embrace the misery associated with failure and adversity, and I realize that there’s always a silver lining within it and an opportunity to improve and get better. As much as we hate it, growth can be uncomfortable. And I’m thankful that I’ve had enough growth in my life that I’ve learned to embrace the discomfort that comes with growth. And unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon perspective, the more uncomfortable I am, the greater the growth opportunity.”

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