Youthful exuberance

The Baltimore Sun

Mike Tomlin thinks heaping praise on NFL players for connecting with a new, young, inexperienced coach quickly, and to great success, sells those players short.

"These guys know, when faced with a new coach, that the coach's sole intentions are to win and to put them in position to win," the Steelers' second-year head coach said last week from Pittsburgh. "I think there's mutual respect between players and coaches across this league and in this game. I think a lot of times people expect the worst, when, more times than not, players give you the benefit of the doubt and are ready to follow."

Tomlin might have a point; he might just have an unusually solid group of veterans under his command. John Harbaugh might have a group of veterans just as solid in Baltimore in his first year as a head coach. But these two relative newcomers did more than get the benefit of the doubt to take those players to where they are today - the 9-4 Ravens playing the 10-3 Steelers with the AFC North division lead and playoff berths at stake.

And while the coaches want to give the players credit, Tomlin and Harbaugh deserve just as much themselves. For certain, not every team takes to its new coach quickly, nor does every young coach get treated professionally or, for that matter, do what it takes to earn that treatment.

These two have. Tomlin, 36, was hired at 34; Harbaugh is 46, hired at 45 in January. Neither was a head coach before at any level. Both replaced predecessors, Bill Cowher and Brian Billick, who had won Super Bowls but likely had reached their effectiveness limit after long tenures with their teams.

It might be a matter of a new face and new voice, but clearly Tomlin and Harbaugh have brought more than that.

Tomlin still has the core of the Steelers' 2005 championship team (minus the Steelers' usual free-agent defections), and it has rallied around him. He, in turn, rallies around them, as was evident to all last week in his animated celebration with the players at the end of the Steelers' win over the Dallas Cowboys. Yet he also has their respect and their attention, as he made clear later in the week when he had to address criticisms of the offense by Willie Parker - and, along the way, dress Parker down.

Harbaugh has taken much the same approach: fiery, inspirational, sending the message that he's in the fight with them but also making sure they know who is in charge. Hence, the cone of silence covering the locker room all week with respect to any Hines Ward-related talk.

No less a presence in that locker room than Ray Lewis has had Harbaugh's back all year, and in turn the brush fires here and there - Chris McAlister, Willis McGahee, the "bounty" - stay contained.

"I don't know if they have to do anything special," Lewis said of young coaches such as Tomlin and Harbaugh. "It's just something about a young coach, when they come in, their energy, especially on game day. You think sometimes when the time comes for the game, Harbaugh wants to get in there and put on the pads with you."

It also helps, of course, that they work for strong organizations and ones with the vision not only to hire someone without a lengthy resume but also to put them in position to succeed - just as the coaches put players in that position.

So it's no accident that Tomlin and Harbaugh are where they are. Or that they have their teams where they are today, and so soon.

Listen to David Steele on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

points after

* Mighty big of the NFL to squeeze in a suspension for Matt Jones at the end of the season, just five months after he was charged with cocaine possession. It's not as if he scuffled with a bodyguard in a bathroom or shot himself in the leg or anything.

* Terrell Owens is in a conflict with his quarterback again. And to think, he could have been all ours.

* Who would have guessed the Orioles would get into a free-agent bidding war with the Washington Nationals this fast?

* Is it possible to "quietly" score an NBA-record-tying 33 points in one quarter? Ask Carmelo Anthony.

* I tried to get indignant about CC Sabathia's salary "in this failing economy" (as we heard ad nauseum last week), and then I remembered how much Adam Sandler makes for his movies.

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