As sports media and social networks seek to make the walls of NFL locker rooms more transparent, they still don't see everything. However, Pittsubrgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin has come under fire after a frightful failure at home against the San Diego Chargers.
Several players, most notably Brett Keisel and Curtis Brown, were quoted after the game of not being fully ready to win the contest. Those quotes spread like flu strains, and became defined by assumption. Correlations were drawn between the Charger loss and several other less-than-desirable performances. Before long, those correlations transformed into questions about Tomlin's ability to lead a football team.
Unfortunately, those passionate presumptions are made without any inside knowledge or first-hand witness to Tomlin in action, outside of what is caught by cameras on game day fields. Speculation perverts fact, as context is conveniently discarded from the algorithm.
Despite leading his team to a winning record while, at times, missing 2 former defensive players of the year, the teams top 2 quarterbacks, their feature back, and half of the roster's original offensive line; his ability to adapt has been denied. Despite his team still having strong playoff participation possibilities, his ability to get the most out of his best available players has been forced under a microscope; regardless of the fact that those best available players each week have been third stringers and worse. Despite getting lesser talented players to perform like regular starters, his ability to motivate has been utterly crucified.
Those doing the questioning point to losses like those against the Chargers and the Cleveland Browns as factual evidence that Tomlin does not place the proper emphasis on fundamentals and game preparation. They point to his handlings of situations like the benchings of Jonathan Dwyer and Rashard Mendenhall, or his handling of veteran practice schedules with Troy Polamalu and Casey Hampton. as his inconsistency as a disciplinarian. Tomlin has been judged to be inept and incapable of controlling his team or winning football games.
Because context is never treated as an essential part of the discussion, his unorthodox methods have been mistaken for incompetence. His aggressive leadership is seen rather as melancholic mismanagement.
When Keisel and Brown spoke to the media about being unprepared, and Rashard Mendenhall was suspended for one game for not joining his teammates on the sidelines on a gameday because he would not be dressing; preposterous accusations became iron clad verdicts in the case of Mike Tomlin as context was murdered out of sheer ignorance.
Context cannot be ignored. When we separate context from fact, our perceptions of reality become skewed. As a good example of how context can swing the perception of actual events, I give you an American General that won his country its independence from England in the Revolutionary War, whose actions leading up to that eventual victory would seem more like failures if we were to remove context from historical account. That General's name is Nathanael Greene.
Greene and Tomlin had very similar beginnings to their respective careers. Greene as a young man was a student of mathematics and law. As he grew older, he aspired to be a part of the military; an aspiration that got him expelled from the Quakers. Because he walked with a "pronounced limp", he was deemed unfit to join the local militia he helped to organize. He instead dedicated himself once again to study, only this time he was studying military strategy. His accrued knowledge of military protocol got him named to a committee to revise militia law.
He eventually joined the Rhode Island Army of Observation which was formed in answer to the British invasion of Boston, and was quickly promoted from private to Major General, and was later appointed as a brigadier of the Continental Army. George Washington placed Greene in command of Boston once the British had been forced back into the ocean.
Greene impressed Washington immediately, and proved to be Washington's most revered adviser, and most respected peer. Greene's early career was a mirror to Tomlin's beginnings as Tomlin quickly ascended the coaching ranks to eventually become only the third head coach of the heralded Steelers becoming only the 3rd different coach in nearly 40 years. Tomlin impressed the Rooneys with his knowledge, dedication, and attitude; much like Greene won over Washington, which also led to a personal friendship that extended beyond battlefields.
Greene, like Tomlin, was not invulnerable to injury or illness, as illness prevented his participation in the Battle of Long Island after building the redoubts and entrenchments of Fort Putnam. By this point, barely a year since his post in Boston, Greene had been named one of four Major Generals of the Continental Army. However, his views were brought into question when he became a prominent advocate for a retreat from New York, burning the city to the ground on their way out because the majority of the land belonged to British loyalists. Congress quickly dismissed his view and transferred his commission to Fort Lee, located on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River.
Greene soon succeeded General Putnam as commander of Fort Washington which lied across the river from Fort Lee. Both Congress and General Washington ordered Greene to defend Fort Washington to any end; although Washington later sent personal word to Greene to use his own discretion. Greene did that. He left his post in the hands of another general, and moved to react to the marching British force. Both Fort Washington and Fort Lee were lost, and the blame was put on Greene's shoulders; but he never lost the confidence of General Washington.
Greene had his opinions and views questioned and shot down on a regular basis. After leading one of the columns in the Battle of Trenton, and then urged Washington to move the troops to Princeton; his views were rejected once again by Congress. In Germantown, Greene's forces had further to travel than the second wing, and arrived much later to the battle than the rest of the force. Again, his worthiness of Washington's trust was doubted.
At Valley Forge, Washington promoted Greene to Quartermaster, and quoted Greene as having done "as good as was possible under the circumstances of that fluctuating uncertain force". However, Greene's new position would be quickly resigned, as he found himself fighting against Congress as much as he fought the redcoats. Congress believed that the individual states should fund the Continental Army, while Greene believed that plan's inefficiency would contribute to an American downfall, since at the time the federal government had little control over the states. His resignation resulted in his appointment to West Point, however he was not done leading men to victory.
The Continental Army suffered in the south. Generals were part of a "next man up, standard is the standard" plan that led to loss after loss. When the British defeated Gates' army and forced them to run in wild confusion, the American southern fighting forces were considered to no longer be a threat. British commander Cornwallis saw this as an opportunity to move into the South, and secure loyalists. Congress entrusted Washington to select Gates' replacement, and without hesitation Washington turned again to Greene. Greene's new commission placed him second in command of the entire Continental Army.
When Greene moved into the South, his forces were severely depleted and ill-equipped to handle Cornwallis' forces. In an effort to compensate, Greene chose to divide his forces rather than to lead them in unison; an idea frowned upon by most conventional strategists. However, this split forced the British to split up their force as well, which created the opportunity for creative interplay. It proved successful as the British found their own numbers diminishing significantly with each passing engagement, despite technically winning many of those battles as the Americans often would retreat.
This retreat eventually became the "race to the Dan River". Greene sent word to the other American Garrisons to meet him there. As Greene moved towards his announced destination, his troops continued to eliminate pockets of British militia on the way. Greene created a lighter garrison to cover the retreat of the main forces, as they moved towards the Dan. His tactics worked as the Americans beat the British to the Dan, trapping them on the opposite side of the river. Greene had already sent message for the remainder of the American force to meet him there, knowing that the Americans would have the chance to chase Cornwallis, as Cornwallis had chased him for so long.
Greene, after only encamped for a week, received word that his requests had been met. He then felt confident enough to re-cross the Dan, and move on Cornwallis. At the Battle of Guilford Court House, Greene took on Cornwallis' army. Greene's troops secured the flanks of the British force, and began obtaining the upper hand. Cornwallis in return ordered his cannons to fire grapeshot directly into the fighting, killing more of his own men than Americans. Greene immediately led another retreat, which led the British into trap after trap. Greene used guerilla tactics to stir up the British and encourage them to follow, only to pick off the chasing British through sharpshooters, and well placed units.
Because Greene's forces were constantly retreating, the American's were considered to be losing each battle. However, with each "loss" the British forces were being depleted exponentially. The chase had exhausted the energies of the British, and eventually their morale. Greene suffered several other alleged defeats, even though at each confrontation, the British lost large portions of troops. The British found themselves forced into certain geographic regions, where they lost advantage after advantage.
History books will tell you that Greene lost every battle in his southern campaign. However, his strategic mind had actually been looking at the War as a much bigger picture. He didn't have to "win" each battle to win the war. Because of the toll Greene's tactics took on the British, they eventually found themselves cornered in Yorktown. Greene had kept Cornwallis preoccupied long enough for the French Navy to move in and secure the Chesapeake, thus severing the British supply line. Cornwallis found himself losing supplies and men, and lost the support of his homeland.
The Continental Army bombarded the British for days in Yorktown, before Cornwallis surrendered. While the French navy, and the British command, saw Washington as the leader who had secured the American victory; it was Greene's tactics that made the victory, and American independence, possible.
It's easy to look back on Greene's career and see that he wasn't the failure that each small loss made him out to be. While all Congress saw were retreat after retreat, Greene knew exactly what he was doing. Greene stuck to what he believed no matter the opinion of Congress. If he hadn't, Americans would most likely be Englishmen today.
From Tomlin's handling of personnel, to his time management issues; Tomlin has been verbally opposed like Greene. However, when Keisel's quotes hit the mainstream news feed; Tomlin moved quickly to set the record straight. While many saw Tomlin's individual defeats as failures or retreats, Tomlin was simply doing what needed done.
When asked about Keisel's comments, Tomlin made sure to clarify that while they would retreat to regroup; no one was "running away". Tomlin acknowledged and confirmed Keisel's statements. While the team had gone through full preparation, they still lost the battle. Tomlin saw it as part of the process, and obviously the team would work even harder to correct their mistake. Tomlin did as any great leader would do. He accepted battle defeats for the sake of war victories.
While Tomlin's unconventional methods are questioned upon minute sample sizes, when you compare his record in hindsight; the man is a successful leader. He has two Super Bowl appearances to prove it. He has 7 victories this season to prove it. When this season is over, and Tomlin's performance is reviewed in context, he will not be seen as the failure that he has been made out to be. The lynchpin is context.
Greene stuck to what he believed in and it won him the war, while rarely winning individual battles. Greene ignored the negativity spewing from the mouths of powerful people that had never fired a single musket in the war. Tomlin has done the same, refuting the claims of those not in his locker room that he was incapable of leading his men to victory. Leaders lead despite the unfortunate circumstances that befall them along the way.
Quality of leadership is not quantified in individual wins, it is determined by the outcome of the entire process.