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Mike Tomlin’s ‘Side Project’ to Develop Najee Harris, ‘a Born Leader’

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Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin (left) and running back Najee Harris (right) during OTA practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex -- ED THOMPSON

Mike Tomlin knows the Steelers need new leadership to emerge soon. The retirement of Ben Roethlisberger has left the primary leadership of the team to Cam Heyward. But Tomlin wants new leaders to emerge, and he sees second-year running back Najee Harris as one of those answers.

“Right now, a little side project that I’m on is I’m fostering the growth and development of leadership,” Tomlin said Tuesday on the Pivot Podcast. “I’m bridging the transitional leadership relationship between Cam Heyward and Najee. Like, Najee is a leader. He was a born leader. He’s got good football morals. He sees the game the way we see the game.”

That side project is a campaign that could pay dividends for the Steelers if Harris becomes the player Tomlin envisions for the team’s locker room.

Harris came up as a leader for Alabama, a premier college football program that produces top-tier talent every year. There, he learned how to not only lead, but how to show deference and follow the established leaders before becoming a leader himself.

But Tomlin still wants Harris to learn what it takes to be a leader not just in the NFL, but specifically for the Steelers.

“He wants to be a part of what’s right,” Tomlin continued about Harris. “So, that needs to be cultivated. That needs to be trained. Going back into last year, I’ve challenged Cam Heyward to help him grow in that way. So, what does that mean? What does that look like? We give of our time and our space to that young man. We’re not gonna ask him to leave without teaching him how to do it, what it looks like, what it entails. And not only in our words, but our actions.”

Tomlin knows Harris has the talents to be a leader on the field for the Steelers and will be a focus of the offense. That was a big reason for making Harris a first round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft when they knew there would be rebuilding at quarterback after Ben Roethlisberger’s looming retirement.

“And so, Cam Heyward and myself are opening up our time and space to that dude,” Tomlin said. “We are showing him the why that we do what it is that we do. That dude is a bell-cow. He’s gonna have to be a bell-cow for us. If this train is going anywhere in 2022, he’s gonna be a major component of it.”

But what Tomlin must pull out of Harris isn’t just his production as a potential All-Pro running back. It’s being the leader that everyone on the Steelers gets behind and sets the tone to set the standard Tomlin expects of his players each week.

“He can bring the best out of his teammates,” Tomlin said of Harris. “Weighing the responsibility that comes with leading. He’s just young. And so, it’s been a fun project.”

Part of what’s made the project fun for Tomlin has been the times he’s spent with Harris away from football. Tomlin recalled a story from late last season when he and Heyward wanted to help Harris make his house more festive for the holiday season.

“Last year before the holidays, we were sitting around after practice just on the patio and I’m messing with him,” Tomlin recalled. “And I’m like ‘I betcha if I went to your house right now, you don’t have one ornament up.’ You wouldn’t know what month it is at your house. You’ve got nothing on the tree, nothing under the tree. You’ve got nothing.”

“He said ‘you’re right,'” Tomlin continued, quoting Harris. “I said ‘Head, teach this dude, teach this caveman how to live man’. Man, you’ve got to live your whole life, man. We’re playing ball right, this is tight ball. We’re trying to make the tournament, but it’s December 21st man, it is Christmas. Cam Heyward had a Christmas tree delivered to his house that night and ornaments, and all of that stuff.”

There’s no part of a Christmas tree or ornament that will make Harris run faster, read holes quicker or catch passes better. But those are the little moments Tomlin wants to sprinkle into Harris’ experience as a member of the Steelers to cultivate him into someone who understands tradition and wants to lead for the team moving forward.”

“We laughed about it, and the next he was like ‘the dude delivered a tree to my house,'” Tomlin recalled. “But that’s got nothing to do with football, we want him to know that we need some things from him in a football way, and so we’re gonna help him with the other aspects of his life because I can’t run the ball and neither can Cam Heyward. We can help (Harris) with that other stuff. That’s what I’m excited about. There’s gonna be some new leadership here. Some you can anticipate like him. But make no mistake, we’re not sitting around hoping that any of it happens. We’ve thoughtfully constructed it.”

It’s also apparent that Harris reciprocates appreciation for Tomlin. Harris has said as much in past talks with media, like when he spent Thanksgiving with Tomlin’s family. He posted on his Twitter account after seeing the interview about Tomlin:

Tomlin has made it clear he’s more excited than anxious about not having Ben Roethlisberger, simply for the challenge it will give him and the Steelers. But Tomlin is nobody’s fool and knows he needs new cards in his deck to play for the Steelers to remain competitive and take steps forward in the coming years.

In that new deck, Tomlin sees Harris as an ace. That he’s put so much effort into cultivating Harris shows he has a plan with how to play his new ace moving forward.

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