I’m going to start this off with what should be obvious, but needs to be said in this world of headline munching: I DO NOT HATE MIKE TOMLIN.
It’s completely within the realm of reason to offer criticism of someone’s actions without there being any malice towards them. I felt it important to clearly lead off with that, since most readers of news and sports articles never even read this far.
If you find Tomlin completely above criticism or beyond reproach – then you probably won’t like what follows. Ok, now that that’s been clearly stated, let’s move along.
Former President Harry Truman had a placard on his desk that read, “The Buck Stops Here.” It signified that as President and Commander in Chief, he was ultimately responsible for the things that happened under his watch.
That’s one of the main things that comes with the position of being the boss: Responsibility.
The position of Head Coach of an NFL team works in a similar way, though there is a bit more leeway in that Ownership and the Front Office (General Manager, etc.) also share in the accolades and blame – but when it comes to in-game decisions, the “buck” stops at the desk of the head coach.
Former Steelers QB and 4-time Super Bowl winner Terry Bradshaw was asked a question on FS1’s show Speak for Yourself, and gave an answer that did not sit well with many people: Mike Tomlin is a cheerleader. Perhaps it was his “good ol’ boy” way of speaking that rubbed fans the wrong way, but you could easily substitute “motivator” in place of “cheerleader” and make the same argument without the gender connotations.
Tomlin is indeed a motivator, someone who has a fiery passion for the game and his players. He pumps them up then turns them loose. Bill Cowher was the same type of coach, and earned the nickname “The Jaw” for his emotional responses to what happened on the field.
Bradshaw came from a generation before that, where Coach Chuck Noll had a completely different mindset – and was someone Bradshaw never did get along with. Bradshaw wanted motivation, craved a pat on the back, a hug, a father figure or simply someone to let him be himself.
Noll famously stated, “If I have to motivate you, I’ll fire you.” He felt that since players were professionals, their paychecks and love of the game should be motivation enough for them to want to keep their job. He wasn’t there to hold their hand, he was there to tell them what they had to do to win – then he expected them to do it or else they’d be gone.
Perhaps it’s a generational thing, expecting players to behave as professionals.
Fast forward now to Tomlin’s response to Bradshaw’s comments: “Terms like ‘cheerleader guy,’ to me, maybe fall outside the bounds of critique or criticism. They probably fall more toward the area of disrespect and unprofessional. But what do I know? I grew up a Dallas [Cowboys] fan. Particularly, a Hollywood Henderson fan.”
“Hollywood” Henderson was famously the man who said that Bradshaw couldn’t spell the word “cat” if you spotted him the “C” and “A.” Tomlin, who just spoke about disrespect and unprofessionalism, in essence called Bradshaw “dumb.”
Bradshaw called his own plays and played at his best in the biggest of games, but because he’s from Louisiana and has a southern accent, he’s often assumed to be a “bumpkin.”
Beyond this war of words that got people’s attention and got people talking, there are real questions surrounding Tomlin’s coaching legacy that go beyond wins and losses. Let’s look at a few.
Inmates Running The Asylum?
We don’t have to look back far to notice Tomlin’s decision to have Antonio Brown returning punts and Ben Roethlisberger under center in garbage time versus a thoroughly beaten Miami Dolphins team.
While Brown escaped injury, Big Ben left the game in a precautionary walking boot. It’s been argued that Roethlisberger assumedly lobbied to remain in the game (what self-respecting player would say ask to be taken out, anyway?) but the decision is Tomlin’s to make.
To quote the knight at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “He chose poorly.”
Allowing his players/coaches to do as they please isn’t something new. Former Steelers linebacker turned Steelers linebacker coach, Joey Porter, is certainly not someone under Tomlin’s (or anyone’s) control. He famously was out on the field last season and got involved in an altercation with a few Bengals players. Last night, Porter was arrested after what appears to be a little too much celebrating and a little too much grabbing of a police officer.
Truth be told, he wasn’t under Cowher’s control either; as Porter was ejected BEFORE a 2004 game against the Cleveland Browns.
As for coaches making their way out onto the field, Tomlin has does this himself. In 2013, Tomlin wandered out onto the field and interfered with Baltimore Ravens returner Jacoby Jones. Tomlin was fined $100k for that lack of situational and spatial awareness.
The clock has not been Tomlin’s friend. He has routinely mismanaged the clock and personnel (examples HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE). For a more recent example, let’s return to yesterday’s Wild Card game.
During the 3rd quarter, Roethlisberger was forced to call a timeout on 3rd & 6 at the Miami 21 yard line because the play didn’t get into him in time and the play clock was almost expired. The Steelers got the 1st down, but had it called back on a penalty. That made it 3rd & 11 at the Miami 26. On a busted play, Roethlisberger rushed up the middle for an 8 yard gain and that left the Steelers with a 4th & 3 at the Miami 18.
Instead of sending the FG unit out there with an already sizable lead, what does Tomlin do? He calls yet another timeout. He THEN sends the FG unit out there. The Dolphins incredibly commit an encroachment penalty, which allowed the Steelers drive to continue.
That sure was lucky for Tomlin, and the Steelers.
There is a lot to be said for luck in the game of football, and Tomlin has often had more than his fair share. He’s had a Hall of Fame franchise quarterback (barring injuries) for his entire tenure and currently boasts an offense featuring a top WR and RB in Brown and Le’Veon Bell, respectively. That can make a coach look better than he is.
In fairness, Cowher had similar talent; except on the defensive side of the ball. Noll drafted talent all over the place and coached them up to Hall of Fame levels.
Speaking of drafting…
An important part of being a head coach is player evaluation.
He (along with General Manager Kevin Colbert) took a while to get their drafting successful. His first 1st rd pick of Lawrence Timmons and his 5th rd pick William Gay are the successes from his 2007 class. His 2008 class was a complete washout, with no players remaining on the team or becoming successful elsewhere. Nobody from his 2009 class remain, though Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis found careers elsewhere.
In 2010, things began to turn around a bit; as that class boasts Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown, while Emmanuel Sanders found success elsewhere. His 2011 class netted starters in Cameron Heyward and Marcus Gilbert. 2012 produced starters in David DeCastro and Kelvin Beachum.
From 2013 onward, they’ve gotten better with the exception of using a 1st round pick on Jarvis Jones – so credit to them for seemingly figuring things out.
Is Tomlin Terrible? Great? Somewhere In-Between?
I’ll state plainly that Tomlin is not a terrible coach. Bradshaw didn’t call him terrible, and I haven’t seen anyone with knowledge of the game say that he is. A terrible coach doesn’t survive 10 years with the same team, even a team that is as loyal as the Steelers.
I’ll state plainly that Tomlin is not a great coach. He said as much himself:
“The term ‘great’ is something that I have a great deal of respect for. I certainly don’t think that my resume to this point reads as great but very few coaches’ resumes read that at this point. Guys like Bill (Belichick) in New England can probably say that, or (Greg Popovich) down in San Antonio, but I think the rest of us are just working stiffs, to be quite honest with you.”
Coach Tomlin is, in my opinion, “good enough, for now.” While he is well liked by his players by being a “player’s coach,” and has had success often despite his own blunders – it’s hard not to suspect that these Steelers teams could have gotten further or done even more without his mistakes. The blunders have, after all, cost them games at times.
It’s easy to see that leaving Roethlisberger in the game to get hurt didn’t cost the team a victory, but what about a victory next week in Kansas City? What about the next time a questionable decision affects the outcome of a game, future games, or a player’s career?
Being a Steelers head coach comes with high expectations but also grants you a VERY long leash, as having only three head coaches since 1969 will prove. Despite his soundbites and quotables, the standard is indeed the standard – and if that standard was set by Noll; it’s a level Tomlin has yet to live up to beyond the wins column.
Loyalty is “The Rooney Way,” but there is a point where loyalty only gets you so far. That point in time may be coming, but it’s only for the Rooneys to decide when Tomlin’s time is up.