PITTSBURGH -- The standard is the standard.
The words are all over here. Inside the Heinz Field locker room, on the pages of newspaper stories, out of the mouths of players. A quick Google search only brings up references to Mike Tomlin -- and his use of the phrase -- and so, the Pittsburgh Steelers head coach was asked this week, where does this axiom come from?
Tomlin paused. He thought. And then he said, "I don't know."
Of course he doesn't. It's the driving ethos of this team. It's the reason the Steelers have survived a four-game absence of their franchise quarterback (for the second time in Tomlin's tenure). It's why players long labeled busts turn out to be saviors, it's what defines this group's collective personality. And yet, no, Tomlin has no grand story -- heck no recollection -- of how the words first strung together.
"Yep. That sounds like Mike T," said Lawrence Timmons, Tomlin's first-ever draft pick as the Steelers head coach. The linebacker is either the player Tomlin is hardest on (according to Timmons), or his favorite (says Le'Veon Bell) and the two have grown here in this city together. Timmons says the first thing he'd express about the only NFL coach he's had is that he's genuine. The second is that he's a motivator. The third? He's fun to listen to.
No NFL coach elucidates things quite like Tomlin. Last week, on deciding who his quarterback would be: "We'll analyze all those variables." This week, on being careful with his returning starter -- and potentially gimpy-kneed -- Ben Roethlisberger: "At this juncture, we're not going to assume he's going to be limited from a mobility standpoint." There's never an indoor voice, there's always an SAT word and there's generally a sense that he studied a thesaurus at some point in his life. In fact, guard Ramon Foster said he'd put money on it.
"His mom," Foster said, "probably made him read a thesaurus. He's a nerd."
Which brings us back to Tomlin's favorite words.
The Steelers have a game that brings out all the clichés this week; Bengals coach Marvin Lewis used "big," Tomlin "measuring stick." Cincinnati comes to town, undefeated at 6-0, carrying an absurd amount of talent and more swagger than ever before in the Andy Dalton era. The Steelers get Roethlisberger back, very much alive at 4-3 and sporting a roster with arguably as much talent.
The story of the Steelers, though, is the 2-2 they went as Roethlisberger was sidelined with a sprained MCL and bone bruise. They did so with a 35-year-old second-string quarterback who only signed with the team as training camp wound down (Mike Vick) and with a 26-year-old third-string quarterback who had never played a regular-season snap of NFL football (Landry Jones). They did it without starters, at various points in those four games, at linebacker (Ryan Shazier, Jarvis Jones), defensive end (Stephon Tuitt), safety (Will Allen), receiver (Martavis Bryant) and left tackle (Kelvin Beachum). They did it because, well, the standard is the standard.
Translation: There is one standard. It is always the standard. When a starter goes down, when a ref makes a lousy call, when the weather is foul, it's all irrelevant in this adage. The standard here, ostensibly, never changes. If Beachum blocked for seven seconds, then Alejandro Villanueva, an Army veteran who went five years without playing a football game after his graduation from West Point, better expect to block for seven seconds, too. As for why it happens?
Darrius Heyward-Bey says it's because Tomlin expects every player, star or scrub, to "punch the clock" the same way.
Foster says it's because Tomlin convinces his players that every single one of them is needed.
Landry Jones came in against Arizona two weeks ago, after Vick suffered a tear in his hamstring and without any sort of warning. He engineered an eye-rubbing comeback, he sweetly said afterwards he still couldn't get past the fact that he simply got to play and two days later, when Tomlin was asked to comment on Jones' day, he said in that booming voice, "He's a professional quarterback. We're not going to throw a pep rally."
Several times this year, Tomlin's rebuffed reporters looking for warm fuzzies on replacement players, saying each was doing the job he was paid to do, and once, three years ago, he scolded this reporter for asking what he termed "feelings" questions.
But sometimes, a listener can get lucky. Just as he won't stroke a player's ego, he won't publicly belittle one. He will, though, never feel obliged to varnish. And so, when he was asked about Antonio Brown's very obvious frustration with the Steelers' two backup quarterbacks not delivering him the ball as Roethlisberger does, Tomlin didn't mince words. He said he's told Brown he needs to get a ring, not stats.
"He's going to be judged," Tomlin said then, "by how many Lombardis he adds to our stash."
That, after all, is the standard.