PITTSBURGH — In trying to explain why the Pittsburgh Steelers never seem to have a down season, coach Mike Tomlin stumbled on to an analogy that also fits Monday night’s game between his team and the Kansas City Chiefs.
“There’s a fine line in this league between drinking wine and squashing grapes,’’ Tomlin said. “We understand that, know that and embrace that.”
There isn’t any doubt which of tonight’s contestants is quaffing a fine varietal. The 5-3 Steelers are again in the playoff hunt and could well make the postseason for the ninth time in the last 12 seasons.
The 1-7 Chiefs are the ones with the red feet. They’re also more than a little red in the face.
Chairman Clark Hunt held up the Steelers as the model franchise for the Chiefs when they were preparing to change administration of their football operation. In December 2007, almost a year before the Chiefs made the transition at general manager from Carl Peterson to Scott Pioli, Hunt said he hoped the Chiefs would be able to follow Pittsburgh’s unique methods and, by extension, their success.
“I’m a strong believer that continuity at the head coaching position is very important to long-term success,’’ Hunt said then. “Probably you could point to the Pittsburgh Steelers as the best example of that. They do a great job of drafting players, developing them and playing them and they have tremendous continuity with their head coaches. They have a system and an approach about how they do it and it’s important we develop that kind of mind-set here.’’
It should go without saying the Chiefs have failed. Midway through Pioli’s fourth season, the Chiefs are already on their second head coach and the prospects don’t look good for Romeo Crennel to make it to 2013.
Pioli’s draft record could generously be called spotty. Some higher round picks like Jon Baldwin and Dexter McCluster don’t appear to be any better than when they arrived in Kansas City.
Most importantly, other than a 10-6 record and a division title in a weakened AFC West in 2010, the Chiefs haven’t been able to reach the playoffs even though Pioli inherited a roster stocked with skilled young players.
“To be able to maintain the continuity and the consistency that they’ve been able to do, how many teams — you can probably count them on your hands — have that kind of consistency?” said Crennel, who went winless in eight games against the Steelers while he was coaching for Cleveland from 2005 through 2008. “In the NFL, about 30 percent of the teams will change coaches every year, so it’s hard to develop the kind of consistency that the Steelers have, that I know the Giants used to have and some other teams in this league.
“It’s never just one thing. It’s always just a combination and a total. It’s draft, it’s developing players, it’s coaching players, it’s players taking ownership, it’s the whole gamut. When you talk about an organization being a solid, good organization, all of those things are involved in it.”
Tomlin is Pittsburgh’s third head coach since 1969. That’s when the Steelers hired Chuck Noll. Bill Cowher came along in 1992 and Tomlin in 2007.
“It’s not only the head coaches,’’ Crennel said. “It’s the organization. They have a philosophy and . . . from top to bottom, they have good people. Everybody is on the same page and all of those things that have to occur to make a team a good team.”
In Tomlin’s five complete seasons, the Steelers have made the playoffs all but once. They made two trips to the Super Bowl, winning once. Tomlin’s Steelers operate much the same way as they did under Cowher and Noll.
They draft and then develop those players as well as any team. Of Pittsburgh’s 22 usual starters, 18 were drafted by the Steelers and two joined them as undrafted free agents out of college. The Steelers rarely feel the need to venture out into the free agent market. Only one of their starters, safety Ryan Clark, was acquired as an unrestricted free agent.
“The Steelers in general have always done it a certain way for a long time,’’ said quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh’s top draft pick in 2004. “It was done here long before me. I don’t want to say the players coach themselves but drive themselves. We don’t really need coaches yelling and screaming at us because the players push themselves and it’s been that way since back in the day.”