PITTSBURGH — It’s a chilly, gray October day as Brian Flores stands on a sideline of the Pittsburgh Steelers practice fields and laughs at the question.
A week and a half from this moment, he’ll step back inside Hard Rock Stadium for the first time since he was fired as the Miami Dolphins head coach in January despite recording the Dolphins’ first back-to-back winning seasons since 2003. He subsequently filed a lawsuit against his former employer, three other teams and the NFL for discriminatory practices in hiring and firing practices on Feb. 1. Since he filed the lawsuit, two more coaches, Ray Horton and Steve Wilks, have joined as plaintiffs, and the NFL has argued to push the case out of the public eye and into arbitration.
But does that recent history, one that’s become a flashpoint for discussion around race and coaching opportunity, give Flores any extra juice entering Sunday night’s game? Could it be, perhaps, a revenge game?
“No, no,” Flores said with a chuckle. “That’s not the way I’m looking at it now.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who hired Flores as a senior defensive assistant in February after Flores called Tomlin for advice, also downplayed Flores’ lawsuit and his return to Miami.
“It’s a nonfactor,” Tomlin said of the pending lawsuit. “It’s irrelevant in terms of what we’re doing here today in preparation for this game. It is a non-story for us. It really is.”
Like Tomlin, Flores is approaching this game with a businesslike mentality, but he’s also acknowledging that there are memories that will come flooding back when he steps off the bus in Miami Gardens. His history with the organization is complicated, and his feelings about returning for Sunday’s game are likely the same. Even so, he smiles as he talks about the relationships he formed with Dolphins athletic trainers Kyle Johnston and Troy Maurer and equipment manager Joe Cimino in Miami, and how much he’s looking forward to seeing them again.
“I don’t have bad memories of the place,” said Flores, who compiled a 24-25 record in three seasons as Miami’s head coach. “I have a lot of good memories, but my focus is here right now.”
“When I think of that place, I think of all the relationships that were built there that are bigger than football and will go a long way beyond football. There’s a lot of those that like that there, players, coaches, support staff. That’s kind of where my thought process goes.”
Flores, 41, arrived in Pittsburgh in February. Together with Tomlin and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, Flores helps develop a defensive plan each week, and he also spends time coaching the linebackers. Among the players he coaches is former first-round inside linebacker Devin Bush, heavily scrutinized and criticized for inconsistent play after an ACL tear in 2019 that derailed a promising start. In Flores, Bush found a coach that’s direct in his instruction and gives feedback in weekly grade sheets. Having tangible measurements of his progress and explicitly verbalized expectations is helpful, Bush said.
“He expects us to be Superman,” said Bush, who added he had his highest-graded game after the Steelers’ win against the Buccaneers. “If you’re not Superman then you’re not playing to your ability.
“Monday you know you’re going to get a grade sheet, and if you’re not Superman then you’re going to get a bad grade. … Feedback is always good. Whether it’s good, no positive or negative.”
Flores enters this week after vanquishing an old familiar face. With his help, the Steelers’ shorthanded defense upset Tom Brady and the Buccaneers as nearly double-digit underdogs. And while Flores wasn’t intimately familiar with Tampa Bay’s system, he did provide a crucial window into the quarterback’s mind, knowledge he gained in 10 seasons on the New England Patriots’ coaching staff.
In practice before the Steelers’ 20-18 win, Flores meticulously went over a play where he expected Brady to look from the strongside linebacker before throwing it to the weak side. Come that Sunday, Brady targeted receiver Chris Godwin on a crossing route in the second quarter. Jack recognized what was happening, but he was just a step off of Godwin. Brady tried to exploit the situation, but he missed the throw for an incomplete pass.
“He was spot-on, man,” inside linebacker Myles Jack said. “He was like, ‘It’s going to play out just like this, I’m telling you.’ And that same play happened. He just has a very, very good understanding, especially when we were playing Tom. He was like, ‘We have to be where we’re supposed to be, and if we’re misaligned or miscommunicating, he’s going to find it.’”
And yet, the Steelers were rarely misaligned. Even with a number of new faces, the communication was nearly seamless.
Playing for Flores was among the things that attracted Jack to signing with the Steelers in free agency. Through the offseason and six weeks of the regular season, Jack and Flores have developed a steady rapport. Flores calls Jack, the most veteran inside linebacker in the room, the “voice of reason.”
“I think it’s funny,” Jack said. “I think I’m just the guy that’s kind of played the most snaps. Everybody has their own perspective. We collaborate on something and some people may feel one way, some people may feel another. I’ll just kind of throw my opinion in there.”
Jack said Flores is meticulous in detailing his plans and direct in his feedback as Bush said he cuts the “fluff,” and is a stickler for communication.
It’s one of Flores’ main tenets of coaching, and he frequently takes ideas talked about in the inside linebacker room to other position group meetings to make sure everyone’s speaking the same language.
“He’s a great communicator,” Tomlin said. “You don’t ascend in this business the way he has without having certain tools. And he has consistently displayed those tools since he’s been here.”
But as open as he is with communication, Flores still keeps the details of what happened in Miami largely to himself.
“Obviously you hear the headlines and everything on TV and stuff like that, but we have yet to really get his perspective,” Jack said. “Like we try to ask him to mess with him and say little jokes. … Even if we bring it up, he’ll dodge it and won’t even talk about it, keep it about football, beating the Dolphins. One day I’m sure we’ll have a conversation about everything, but he keeps it strictly business. It’s going to be kind of a cool week for him.”
If Flores views Pittsburgh as a temporary stop on his way back to a head-coaching job, he’s not sharing his plans publicly. Shortly after accepting Tomlin’s job offer, Flores bought a house a neighborhood over from Tomlin’s in the heart of Pittsburgh.
“I’m focused on right now,” Flores said. “We’ve got a good group. I’m enjoying coaching with these players and learning under Mike T. That’s been fun. That’s been a lot of fun. It’s a great learning experience for me and that’s kind of where I’m at.”
As for buying a house over renting and what that could possibly signal about his future with the Steelers?
“Talk to my financial advisor.”