Did Mike Tomlin’s First Training Camp Cost the Steelers a Super Bowl?

Mike Tomlin

Getty Head coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

On Tuesday the Pittsburgh Steelers report to Heinz Field for training camp. It will be head coach Mike Tomlin’s 14th training camp—has it been that long already?—which recently prompted Ed Bouchette of The Athletic to take a look back at Tomlin’s first training camp with the Steelers in 2007.

You may recall that the Steelers were coming off an 8-8 season, one compromised by the fallout from Ben Roethlisberger’s motorcycle accident, as well as his subsequent appendectomy, plus a midseason concussion that further compromised Big Ben’s performance.

15 Consecutive Days of Twice-Daily Practices

It seems that Tomlin wanted to establish his authority from the get-go. According to Bouchette, “Tomlin scheduled 15 days of twice-daily practices with no day off over the first two weeks of training camp,” a grueling schedule for any NFL team, but especially jarring for a veteran-heavy bunch that had won Super Bowl XL just a year-and-a-half earlier. Making matters worse, Steelers training camp started early that year because the team played in the Pro Football Hall of Fame game, a 20-7 win over the New Orleans Saints.

Not surprisingly, the veteran players weren’t thrilled about all that practice time, even if they understood that Tomlin needed to see who was tough—and who he could depend on.

Then-Steelers nose tackle Chris Hoke told Bouchette that “We were used to hitting. What we weren’t used to was not getting time off to rest. Our team wasn’t a young football team, we were a veteran team…. That was the hard thing, not getting any rest.”

“I think,” said Hoke, that Tomlin “was trying to come in and see who his players were. [Bill] Cowher knew who would and who wouldn’t. He knew when the lights went on who would play. He knew who was tough and not tough. I think coach Tomlin needed to see that for himself.”

The 2007 Season

At first, the Steelers didn’t show much wear and tear. The team started 3-0 (just like Bill Cowher did in his first season as head coach), before suffering a road loss to the Arizona Cardinals. Tomlin’s crew didn’t lose a home game en route to a 9-3 start and seemed on its way to a high playoff seed and a bye week.

But the Steelers were blown out on the road by the New England Patriots before suffering their first home loss of the year versus the Jacksonville Jaguars. So the reward for winning the AFC North—doing so despite losing three of their last four games—was a home wildcard game against an 11-5 Jaguars team.

By the middle of the second quarter of that playoff game the Steelers were behind 21-7. Their second-half comeback fell short, resulting in a 31-29 defeat.

“He pushed us so hard, I think we ran out of gas,” Hoke told Bouchette.

Postscript: 2008 – Super Bowl XLIII

Of course, the story does have something of a happy ending in that Tomlin didn’t push his players nearly as hard the following year and the Steelers went on to win Super Bowl XLIII, a game that still brings tears to the eyes of Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes.

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