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Steelers' Mike Tomlin making strong case for coach of the year

PITTSBURGH -- As members of the Pittsburgh Steelers trotted out to the practice fields at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Wednesday afternoon, hardly a helmet was in sight.

Most players wore hats, topping off practice gear of shorts and T-shirts.

That's not the usual Wednesday attire.

The Steelers typically have light Wednesdays, with many players taking veteran rest or maintenance days, but this one was lighter than usual.

With the previously scheduled Week 8 bye week moved to Week 4 because the Tennessee Titans' COVID-19 outbreak forced changes to the schedule, the Steelers are in the midst of a 13-game run without a break. Recognizing that and his team's needs, coach Mike Tomlin scheduled a "hats" day, a walk-through practice in place of the usual light-contact day.

The adjustment to the week, one that greatly benefited his players, is a testament to Tomlin's role and reputation as a players' coach -- one that's a significant part of his team's 7-0 start.

"What he did for us today, I have never seen that be done," wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said Wednesday. "We had a hats practice because of the amount of guys on the injury list or just recovering. We had multiple games back-to-back with a bye week that we should have had happen earlier in the season."

For the younger players, having the extra non-contact time on the practice field was welcome -- even if not necessarily needed.

"It means a lot to have a coach who looks out for his players," safety Minkah Fitzpatrick said. "There aren't a lot of coaches across the league that are doing that. I'm a younger guy, so I am feeling all right right now. There are some guys that are a little beat up, nicked up, that need those things. Literally one day of rest can do a lot for you so we appreciate it."

Rookie wide receiver Chase Claypool hasn't been in the NFL long, but even he recognizes the rarity of a rest day during a normal game week.

"I was talking to my friend on the Niners and they are still wearing full pads on Thursdays," he said. "We haven't done that since camp. Having a coach that understands that and the wear and tear on your body is super helpful for getting you through the season and being able to play well in the playoffs."

With the win against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 8, Tomlin, who is in his 14th season with the Steelers, moved ahead of Tony Dungy as the Black head coach with the most regular-season NFL wins with 140.

"I think he's not just a great Black head coach, he's a great head coach," defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. "It's one thing to be the all-time winningest Black head coach, but this dude deserves more than enough credit. To never have a losing season, to get the most out of his players. It's not just first-rounders that wound up playing great here. He's had fifth [round], sixth, undrafted guys who've done well.

"I know a lot of people like to say he inherited a great team, but think about other people who have inherited great teams. Think about the basketball teams that Phil Jackson would take over. That's not a shot at him, but when you are able to lead a group of men and lead them the right way, that says a lot about the type of coach you are."

Since arriving in Pittsburgh in 2007, Tomlin has never had a losing season, but he has won NFL Coach of the Year only once -- in 2008 when the Steelers won the Super Bowl. But with an undefeated start, including back-to-back road victories against the Titans and Ravens, Tomlin is a strong contender for the award.

A year ago, Tomlin was also credited with helping turn a 1-4 start into an 8-8 finish without injured quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, holding the locker room together and encouraging his players through a rough start. This season, his ability to remain consistent in his message and approach, even in a pandemic, reversed the Steelers' usual trend of slow Septembers to an undefeated start -- one they hope to continue against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday (4:25 p.m. ET, CBS).

"I am fortunate and grateful to have a coach like Coach T," Fitzpatrick said. "He is our head coach, so he deserves all of the credit in the world for us starting off 7-0. He is a guy that pays attention to all of the details, he is going to voice his opinion on all of the things he sees. He is transparent, which is something I love about him. He is going to keep it real, keep it honest with you. If anyone deserves a big portion of the credit, it's Coach T for sure."