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Steelers look to regenerate winning culture after lost season

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Orlovsky: Smith-Schuster is defending Big Ben so he gets paid (1:29)

Dan Orlovsky agrees with Antonio Brown that JuJu Smith-Schuster is defending Ben Roethlisberger so he gets paid, but does not blame him for it. (1:29)

PITTSBURGH -- One NFL coordinator recently left an organization-wide meeting in March and couldn't believe how many times he heard the word "culture" over the course of an hour.

The team made clear it valued it above all else.

"Everybody is searching for it," the coordinator said. "It's the buzzword league-wide now."

Add it to the league's buzzword bin, alongside chemistry and intangibles and unselfishness.

In the simplest form, NFL culture breeds success when everyone in the building has "trust and belief in each other," Colts coach Frank Reich says. Good teams pair that belief with top-shelf talent. Bad teams don't follow the recipe.

No culture has been more dissected than that of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which is curious against the backdrop of the franchise's historic success and stability: six Super Bowls, three head coaches since 1969, no losing seasons since 2003. Mike Tomlin's .654 win percentage is second to that of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick since 2007.

Fair or not, the issues over the past six months have influenced perception about what's going on in Pittsburgh's locker room. Le'Veon Bell's yearlong holdout raised questions about the team's approach to negotiations with star players. Analysts and fans are accusing Tomlin of leniency with stars in light of Antonio Brown skipping work in Week 17 and requesting a trade. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is taking heat from former teammates for his leadership tactics.

Missing the playoffs for the first time since 2013 only magnified these issues. In a telling sign of a perceived decline, the Steelers ranked 16th in the ESPN NFL post-free-agency power rankings. The franchise had been a fixture inside the top 10 for years.

This year’s Steelers will show whether a battle-tested coach who’s unapologetic about his style -- treat everyone fairly but not equally -- can churn another winner despite the recent talent drain.

Tomlin said his entire team, coaches included, need to "look in the mirror" after what went wrong. In that process, Tomlin has the chance to reshape parts of his culture while clinging to what has helped him average 10 wins per season.

Tomlin is thoughtful but doesn't overthink the buzzwords.

"I think we’re going to develop (an identity) for 2019 and I don’t want to assume anything as we sit here," Tomlin said last week from the NFL owners meetings. "We’re in the process of acquiring talent via free agency and the draft and blending and developing that talent. And whatever our roles were in 2018, I don’t want to assume anything as it relates to 2019. I’m looking forward to growth and development of some men, and maybe developing in a leadership type of way that maybe wasn’t revealed in 2018 in some instances. So, we’ll write that story."

Tomlin will always fight the "players' coach" label that deems him too friendly with his own locker room. Tomlin works to embolden players, which is considered a strength when a team wins and a weakness when everyone is home in January.

Most former players swear by Tomlin for one of his biggest coaching strengths: He's honest with them about their performance, but not in a threatening way. He motivates without sugarcoating.

That approach is clear in his response to a question about what makes for good locker room culture.

“Let your pet peeves be known," Tomlin said. "Set some boundaries. Provide a structure in which people can be their best, and then ultimately win football games.”

Not many understand the Pittsburgh culture better than Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, who remembers even Chuck Noll taking heat despite winning four Super Bowls.

Dungy remembers fans and media labeling him too soft on players in Indianapolis -- until he won a Super Bowl.

"There’s a lot that’s said when you’re coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers," said Dungy, who knows Tomlin well. "That goes with the territory. People are so passionate about it. No. 1, Mike's makeup and who he is, he’s not going to vary in what he believes. He’s going to do things that are best for the team. And No. 2, the organization, you get support from the top. They talk things out together. There won’t be coach's side, management side, player side. It’s a collective."

The Steelers generally view players as important but not indispensable. Bell and Brown might be gone, but Tomlin saw young stars such as JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner and T.J. Watt ascend during his 12th season. He'll try to develop more stars with the Steelers' 10 draft picks in 2019.

None of that will matter much without wins.

The way Reich sees it, culture makes that happen.

"It really comes down to the mindset and the character of the team and the belief and conviction of what we’re doing, and the trust in each other," Reich said. "You can watch any sport, any time, the championship teams have that. ... The trust, the love for each other is at the center of it. And it’s all about the players. You need the provision, but it doesn’t work without everybody in. You’ve got to have the leaders in the locker room who really believe."