Pittsburgh fans are patient folks, as you can be when you've won six Super Bowls, two in the last five seasons. So when Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for the first four games of 2010, many fans wrote off the season, figuring that the Steelers would start 1-3 or 0-4 without Ben and never make up the ground.
Fortunately for them, Mike Tomlin doesn't think that way. His philosophy is what all coaches preach: "next man up,'' whether it be Dennis Dixon or the ancient Charlie Batch (actually he's only 35, not too old to play quarterback. He just seems older).
So while it's hard to make a judgment after three games, Tomlin's job with the Steelers has probably been the best in the NFL early in the season. Who else? The six best and six worst so far, not necessarily in line with their team's record:
1. Mike Tomlin, Pittsburgh. Actually, the Steelers won the first two games with their defense -- they scored one offensive touchdown, the game-winner in overtime against Atlanta. Again, credit Tomlin. Credit Dick LeBeau, the 72-year-old defensive mastermind, who is almost twice Tomlin's age. "Next man up'' means turning to a unit that was subpar by Pittsburgh standards last season without Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith. They've returned and so has cornerback Bryant McFadden, brought back from Arizona to shore up what had been a weakness last season.
2. Mike Smith, Atlanta. Little known when he was hired. Still little known (maybe it's the generic name). But his teams don't make mistakes; they complement Matt Ryan with the run so they're in position to win a lot of games, like getting into overtime in two tough venues: Pittsburgh and New Orleans. Lost to the Steelers but had some luck against the Saints when Garrett Hartley missed an OT chip shot. But luck is the residue of design. OK, that's a cliché. Still, Smith's design is excellent.
3. Andy Reid, Philadelphia. Like anyone in the sports spotlight in Philly, he takes a lot of abuse. Follows his (considerable) gut on decisions and he's usually right. How many coaches would publicly do a 180 in 24 hours on their quarterbacks, as he did when he reinstalled Michael Vick at quarterback after announcing that Kevin Kolb would get the job back? He's in his 12th season and he's 110-68-1 with five championship-game appearances and one in the Super Bowl. No titles is what galls the Philly fans. They should be happy they have him, because odds are that whoever comes next won't be as good.
4. Todd Haley, Kansas City. A Bill Parcells disciple who's added a Bill Belichick influence with Charlie Weis and Romeo Crennel as his mentors. The conventional wisdom has been that Weis and Crennel are responsible for the 3-0 start because some folks on ESPN, which sets the tone, know them better than Haley. They also credit Scott Pioli although the departed Carl Peterson drafted Glenn Dorsey, Branden Albert, Dwayne Bowe and some of the other young talent. But Haley has put the whole thing together.
5. Lovie Smith, Chicago. Lovie was "a great coach'' when the Bears went to a Super Bowl. "Lovie should be fired" was the mantra after they went 7-9, 9-7, 7-9 the next three years. Yes, they have Mike Martz and Rod Marinelli running the offense and defense, but ... Marinelli and Martz were together in Detroit and the Lions were the worst team in the NFL. So credit Lovie for something -- remember that Brian Urlacher went out for the season in the first half of the first game of 2009. The Bears added Julius Peppers to the mix and ... it should be an interesting three-way race in the NFC North.
6. Wade Phillips, Dallas. If Wade wasn't there to bring calm in the midst of chaos, the Cowboys would have imploded and the owner would be the coach. Jerry Jones already thinks he is -- he hired Jason Garrett as offensive coordinator and designated him coach-in-waiting. Garrett has been average at best, and at worst (see Washington) a guy who loses games. Did you catch Jones standing behind Phillips after the win in Houston and grinning as though a win over the Texans guaranteed a Super Bowl victory? The Cowboys have one playoff win (last season) since 1996 and their fans think they're the best team in the history of football? That's what Phillips has to deal with and handles it well in his laid-back way. By the way, (not "oh, by the way'') his career record as a head coach is 82-56. A lot of people would take that.
27. Tom Coughlin, New York Giants. No question he is a very good coach. He got Jacksonville to the AFC title game in its second year in the league and he won a Super Bowl by outcoaching Belichick. But he's 64 and his old-school tough guy tactics are the kind that have a limited shelf life. He's in his seventh year and his players don't seem to be listening anymore. Last week, he warned his team continually that Jeff Fisher's teams always try to goad opponents into penalties (it was his 19th game against Fisher, whom he faced twice annually with the Jaguars). So the Giants got six unsportsmanlike conduct penalties, turned the ball over three times and lost 29-10 despite outgaining the Titans by 200 yards. And his choice of assistants isn't great -- defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan was over his head last season and longtime offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride is so predictable in his play calling that most Giants fans can tell you what's coming when they line up. Coughlin may retire or "retire'' after the season if this keeps up, although he won't be fired during the season. The Giants as an organization don't panic that way.
28. Brad Childress, Minnesota. Even before Brett Favre, Childress seemed to be confused a lot. Favre's indecision the past two seasons has added to the confusion. Childress says a lot of things that don't track so this may be harsh because we tend to put our faith in coaches who sound good when they don't coach good. But an extra man in the huddle when you're in range of a field goal that will send you to the Super Bowl is on the coach. He always seems to be coaching like a guy in fear of getting fired. That usually means he will be, especially in a division with two other good teams.
29. Chan Gailey, Buffalo. Maybe it should be Russ Brandon, who runs the team for owner Ralph Wilson, who should go. He's not Bill Polian, John Butler and A.J. Smith, who built a team that almost two decades ago won four straight AFC titles. Brandon pushed the 91-year-old Wilson into hiring Gailey, who gave Trent Edwards the quarterback job in training camp, benched him after two games and cut him after three. Brandon is responsible for the mediocre talent there so maybe 0-3 is not Gailey's fault. But ...
30. Mike Singletary, San Francisco. When Singletary was a player, he was the (cliché alert) perfect "coach on the field.'' And he seemed to have a coaching future. But he didn't start coaching until almost two decades after he retired. He still might be a good one but like many great players who get to the sidelines, he expects as much from his players as he gave, which often is impossible. An emotional leader is fine, but you need balance. And calm is sometimes called for (see: Wade Phillips). His relative inexperience should buy him time, but how much on a team that actually had some of its players predicting a 13-3 season? Well, they have the three losses. Can they get the 13 wins now? (And if you fire Jimmy Raye as offensive coordinator after two games, why did you hire him?)
31. Eric Mangini, Cleveland. Why did the Browns hire him about a minute after the Jets fired him? Mike Holmgren arrived and kept him to see what he had. That will last a season -- Holmgren was almost the direct opposite of a coach. Mangini is a young taskmaster who worked for Belichick and treats his players like Belichick treats them, which is badly. You can do that when you win three Super Bowls. No wonder he finished first by a wide margin in a poll of players asking them to name coaches they would least like to play for.
32. Al Davis, Oakland. Yeah, we know who the coach is here and he's not named Tom Cable. Shouldn't Jason Campbell, who's had a dozen offensive coordinators in a dozen years -- or at least it seems that way -- get a little longer to establish himself? Shouldn't ... Hey, they're the Raiders.