Has Tomlin lost the team?

The Steelers haven't lost five games in a row since 2003, when the team ...

... was coming off back-to-back playoff seasons. It was a team that had transitioned from a physical power-running team into a high-tech passing team which would finally take noted dinosaur Bill Cowher into the modern era.

And that high-tech passing game crashed and burned. The team wasn't only soft on offense, it was soft on defense. Any high school coach can explain that dynamic.

But those Steelers didn't come out of the gate 6-2 like these Steelers. Those Steelers lost their five straight after a 2-1 start. They eventually hit 5-9 after the startling 6-0 loss in a Meadowlands blizzard when the Steelers threw the ball 38 times and ran it 24 times.

At that hopeless point in the season, most of us called for Cowher to play some younger players.

Charlie Batch for Tommy Maddox?

Clark Haggans for Jason Gildon?

Anyone for Oliver Ross?

Nope, nope, and nope.

Ike Taylor did start one November game thanks to a dime look, but no other rookie from Troy Polamalu's draft class that year received a start. Cowher wouldn't even give his previous year's class any new work, other than what he'd already been giving starter Kendall Simmons and the one September start he gave to Antwaan Randle El in the slot.

Guess what happened the next season? The Steelers went 15-1, and it certainly had nothing to do with any kind of strong finish in 2003. After the losing streak was put to bed, the Steelers went 3-4 to the wire.

The more correct hindsight is that the veterans appreciated the loyalty from the coach, who in turn swallowed his own pride and asked defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to return after a much-rumored but never-proved acrimonious split following the 1997 season.

The season after that, 2005, the Steelers won the Super Bowl.

How quickly the media forgets. With the walls crumbling down around the team once again, Coach Mike Tomlin told reporters he'd consider changes to his starting lineup. Like Cowher, he thought better of it.

And how the media howled throughout the weekend: How will the players ever trust this man again? His word means nothing anymore!

Chris Hoke, a high-motored reserve playing behind a veteran some might accuse of being "fat and happy," just shook his head.

"You went out and worked because nothing was safe," Hoke said of Tomlin's public contemplation. "Whether you were a starter the whole year or whether you were a starter for a couple of years, your job was not safe. You knew you were on the hot seat."

But can anyone believe this coach the next time he says he's considering changes?

"Sure," Hoke said, "because next time there will be changes."

There's also this to consider: What would the vets have thought had Tomlin played Keyaron Fox over James Farrior? Ryan Mundy over Ryan Clark? Keenan Lewis over Taylor? They would've thought their coach was panicking. The players knew the best players were already on the field.

Credibility wasn't the only virtue being questioned over the weekend. Far and wide, Tomlin was excoriated after the Cleveland loss for having "lost the team," and that his team went out and gave no effort Thursday night.

"I sat home this weekend and I watched the news reports," Hoke said. "I heard what people were saying, and it hurt me because everybody loves Coach Tomlin and everybody's playing hard for the guy. We're preparing the exact same way we prepared last year. We're going into the games with the same mentality as last year. We're just not making the big plays we made last year. I think that's obvious.

"People who say he's lost the team are wrong. Everybody in this locker room respects him. Everybody plays their heart out game after game. That's just ridiculous."

Hoke pointed out that this year's team is 1-7 in games decided by seven points or less, and that last year's team was 6-2 in such games.

"We're not making the big plays like we did last year. That's plain and simple," he said. "Remember at the beginning of the year when you asked me what it'll take to win the Super Bowl? What did I say? LUCK. You need a lotta luck. To win those close games you've got to have luck on your side."

So, the will remains?

"Absolutely," Hoke said. "People who are saying this team just went out there and went through the motions, and there's no leadership or whatever, they're totally out of line by saying that."

If history's any indication, the proof will come next season. Maybe even in a big way.

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