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The Steelers are tired of being the NFL’s most successful failure

Mike Tomlin and the Steelers had a bad habit of getting ahead of their own Super Bowl aspirations last year. Is it going to be different in Pittsburgh this year?

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Training Camp Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

LATROBE, Pennsylvania — It is fitting that the Pittsburgh Steelers begin pursuit of a seventh Super Bowl title on Thursday night in a preseason fracas at the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles wear the latest Super Bowl rings. The Steelers expect to flash the classic rings each year. Without them, Pittsburgh, by its own towering definition, has slogged through nine straight seasons of failure.

Forget the 13-3 regular season from a year ago.

Don’t dwell on the four straight playoff appearances and 124 total career victories by head coach Mike Tomlin as he enters his 12th Steelers season. Even the Tomlin 2009 Super Bowl victory in his second season as Steelers coach seemed an afterthought here at training camp last week.

“It’s really not that complex,” Tomlin said before practice at Saint Vincent College under the searing sun. “It’s win the world championship. It’s a lot we not only accept but embrace. Anything else is failure.”

That 13-3 record from last season was followed by a 45-42 upset, home playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.

“13-3 was nice but we live in the 0-1,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “0-1 is what we have lived in since January. It’s drove this whole offseason. It’s something where you are never satisfied. When you’re never satisfied, you’re working. You want to be great, you do it again and again.”

Does it sound a tad unrealistic, over the top, that 13-3 and a playoff loss is abject failure compared to, for example, the Cleveland Browns’ 0-16 season?

How can this notion possibly, authentically fly amongst the Steelers players?

“Because this idea was bred into me when I walked through the door here and it is done the same way with every player who walks through those doors,” 15-year Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “We have a different definition of success and failure around here. If we don’t win the Super Bowl, it’s all a failure.”

Hard and fast.

All or nothing.

You don’t have to look far to find critics who say the Steelers are in for a bunch of failure and nothing this season with their Le’Veon Bell contract/holdout issue once again dangling. Bell is out of camp, in protest, and the Steelers once again attempt to keep their mantra of loyalty and accountability firm while missing a vital player who believes he has not received enough of either.

“Coach (Tomlin) and I sat down with Le’Veon after the season and coach talked to him more after that,” Colbert said. “Le’Veon is an excellent running back and he has what is fair in his mind and we have what is fair in ours. We expect that he will be here at some point and whenever he is he will be embraced and we’ll go forward. And to say that this will for certain be his last year as a Pittsburgh Steeler is not at all how we are looking at it. We will be opened-minded about it all next year.”

It provides a minefield of coaching for Tomlin.

On the one hand, he preaches a brand of team unity and trust that is ferocious in nature and effective throughout his rule. But with another year of Bell contract squabbles and another year of the total offense getting in snyc on the run, are there cracks among his players in his message?

Not a word of that surfaced on Bell or Tomlin’s definitive structure.

This coach leaves no black, no white, no gray. It’s all direct and blunt and impactful with his players. Colbert calls him “a coach of men” who “knows these young men very well.”

He knows his locker room.

He knows his team.

But he also has a swagger about him, a confidence that some called arrogance when he talked about meeting the New England Patriots in the playoffs when there were many games and many steps left for the Steelers to accomplish prior. When he said late in the regular season that last year’s Steelers should win the Super Bowl.

Of course, that didn’t happen and that Patriots matchup never happened and Tomlin was scorned and ridiculed.

“I felt at that juncture in the season last year that I had seen enough to say it,” Tomlin said. “Yes, I was shocked when we didn’t accomplish it. But I always am when we don’t do it.”

The look in his eyes during his explanation revealed how much he meant his explanation. Mike Tomlin has wrapped himself completely in black-and-gold fanaticism.

And there are no apologies for it.

But the way many of the Steelers bark, the way they are confrontational with opponents before games as much as they are in them has caused some pushback among Steelers veterans entering this season.

“We had a good year last year that ended on a sour note,” eight-year defensive tackle Cameron Heyward said. “There are some lessons to learn from it. Just shut up the noise and take care of business. We didn’t overlook the Jaguars in the playoffs. But we didn’t play much defense. And when it got down to the business of the game, taking care of the nitty-gritty, that was missing. So, all of us need to slow the talk and live in the performance and win these games.”

Roethlisberger added: “I’m from the old-school mentality. Work hard, enjoy it, and just do it. Not so much talk is the way I was raised. I get it’s part of the culture. But don’t make my job harder by inciting the defense or the Mike linebacker to come even harder. I just don’t think we should make it harder. You don’t write a check for other people to have to cash.”

These Steelers hit in training camp. Very hard.

It’s brutally physical. It’s just the way Tomlin likes it. One player called it a “bloodbath.” Another said it is all about “how you stand up against another man.” It’s often the best against the best, not the best against the third-and fourth-string.

And there is not a snivel of complaint.

This is in part how Tomlin has fashioned the Steelers into one of the toughest teams in the league. Many of the players here will tell you, with pride, that they are easily the most physical team in the league.

“Good is not great,” receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said. “We have no Plan B. Each year all of our eggs are in one basket. It’s Super Bowl or bust. I try to keep our guys uplifted; I have the perfect personality for that. The strong link is going to help the weak link get stronger.

“We’ve got a lot of people doing extra now. Guys are putting in more work after practice, guys you don’t usually see around, guys who have been here for 15 years. Know what I mean?”

Sure we do. He was coyly talking Big Ben.

And Roethlisberger did not scuttle or scurry from the thought.

“It’s true,” Roethlisberger said. “I will say that everybody is different and sometimes teammates don’t see the extra work that goes on behind the scenes. But it’s true that they are seeing it more now in me. I’ve got a new diet. I have a new workout regimen that requires extra. We’re all going to put it all out there this year.”

In the Tomlin way.

“Is he cookie-cutter?” Colbert said of his coach. “No, he is not. He is uncommon with a record that speaks for itself as a head coach in this league. I totally trust his approach.”

Tomlin does, too.

He is relying upon and constantly crafting this bunch to display two traits that are essential for every Steelers team: Talent and a burning desire to be champions. His confidence sets the tone for their Super Bowl or bust mentality.

“In the environment that is today’s game, the variables are ever changing,” Tomlin said. “It’s the nature of this thing. The evolution of these guys invariably allows for the wheels to always be turning. The road gets interesting here as the growing gets long.

“That’s for the coach, too. There is a sense of urgency. Always a sense of urgency.”