Despite leading a perennial contender in Pittsburgh, Mike Tomlin has become a target of sorts for critics of the Steelers.
Last season's near-constant drama helped to amplify the thought, as did Pittsburgh's stunning playoff exit via a home loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars. (The latter eventually cost Todd Haley his job as offensive coordinator.) But Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert took it upon himself Friday to strongly back his coach, no matter how out of control things might have appeared in 2017.
"There's no concern whatsoever about our team's attitude, discipline, all that other stuff that gets talked about," Colbert told reporters at Saint Vincent College, per the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Absolutely no concern."
Antonio Brown became the subject of a good amount of the distraction coming out of Pittsburgh's locker room. He tossed a Gatorade cooler during a sideline outburst early in the season. He later live streamed from the locker room -- a place deemed sacred and exclusive by players -- during Tomlin's postgame speech to the Steelers, revealing choice words the coach likely didn't want to get out, and showing Brown wasn't exactly paying attention to what Tomlin had to say.
"Sure, guys do different things that maybe you don't like," Colbert said. "Coach (Tomlin) talks to them about no team business on social media. He does a great job of understanding; coach Tomlin understands a generational player, he understands younger guys. We have to manage what a lot of that stuff is, but a lot of the stuff -- the 'team turmoil,' a lot of that nonsense. That wasn't a concern at all."
A year later, Brown is on the cover of the new Madden NFL video game, uncoincidentally as the game's first helmet-less cover athlete. It's good promotion for Brown and the Steelers, who are again stocked with winning pieces but have developed somewhat of a reputation for having Super Bowl talent, yet consistenly fail to reach the big game.
It's a team that emerged from an offseason that included Ben Roethlisberger criticizing the Steelers' decision to draft his heir apparent instead of an immediate contributor and Colbert shipping out cantankerous receiver Martavis Bryant. That's essentially to say that they're attempting to remedy the pitfalls of last season, but as it goes with most contending teams, sources of controversy (including the Le'Veon Bell contract dispute) will still exist.
And whether fans will like to hear it or not, the onus doesn't fall strictly on the man wearing the headset. Colbert made that point clear Friday.
"The players have to take some of that on themselves, you know what I mean? Look, we can draft them, coach Tomlin can coach them, but when they're out there, it's up to them."
The Steelers aren't another early playoff exit from making a guaranteed change at head coach. But even with Colbert's soapbox-like stand for Tomlin, the heat will turn up on the coach should they see a fate similar to that of 2017.