Brace yourself: Mike Tomlin drawing 'fine line' between creating an edge and giving his players confidence

Jared Wickerham

It has been noted that Mike Tomlin has required offensive linemen to wear knee braces during training camp. Why would Tomlin feel this is a necessary precaution, and maybe more interestingly, why wouldn't the linemen want to take all of the necessary precaution?

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to talk with an NFL offensive line coach. He had spent most of his coaching career at the collegiate level, and he was a veteran of the NFL ranks for only a few years. I asked him the biggest difference between college and the NFL. He responded college athletes are coached right up to the opening kickoff. In the locker room pregame, you'd have a set of reminders that you would review based upon that week's practice. The coach I was speaking with thought he did a really good job preparing his athletes with checklist of reminders.

Once in the NFL, the coach tried to continue this practice. He didn't try long, as before the first game, the star offensive lineman told his coach in an expletive filled tirade that he was preparing himself for the game and he was to be left alone.

That was the difference between college and the NFL.

What does this have to do with knee braces? Directly, nothing.

Indirectly, everything.

Obviously, NFL football players are tremendous athletes. But, there are a lot of great athletes not playing in the NFL. Confidence is what separates the guys that make from the ones that don't. Confidence is manifested in many ways. It was manifested by that star offensive linemen when he told his coach to leave him alone because he knew how to best prepare himself for the game.

One of the best athletes I've ever seen never counted weights while in the gym. The trainer put the weight on the bar, and he lifted it. He didn't care. He was extremely confident. Why do NFL players not wear pads and braces? Because they think they are indestructible. They are confident.

That said, Tomlin overriding that level of confidence is probably the right thing to do. Sometimes, athletes are too confident for their own good. Think of the boxer that has lost all 11 rounds in his fight, but still wants to go out and fight the 12th round. In those situations, it is up to the referee or the corner to protect the fighter. In much the same way, it's up to Tomlin to take every precaution he feels is necessary.

You never want a player to lose that edge. Or, as former Steelers coach Bill Cowher loved to say, it's a fine line. According to various media, Wednesday's practice included a live 11-on-11 session. Besides the annual goal-line session under the lights, I can't remember the Steelers doing a live session like this. To me, it seems as if Tomlin is trying to create an edge. At the same time, it also seems that he is trying to mitigate as many risks as possible while trying to create that edge.

It seems dumb to me NFL players don't wear every pad and brace available to them. If I played in the NFL, I'd look like the kid in The Christmas Story; I'd be so padded up I'd need help getting off the ground. But, that's the point. I'm not a great athlete, and I'm not in the NFL. I can watch college film. I can look at 40 times. I can talk to scouts. But, at the end of the day, I don't know what it takes. I can't relate.

Therein lies the genius of Mike Tomlin.

The former wide receiver from the football factory of William & Mary has always made a point of stressing that players play and coaches coach. Tomlin's lack of football pedigree is a non-issue because he's not getting paid to make plays, he's getting paid to coach. Part of coaching is making intelligent decisions about risk versus reward. And, part of coaching if you are Coach Mike Tomlin means not having players question the coaches, or berate them pregame, because players get paid to play. That's it.

Coaching the mental aspect of football is arguably just as important as coaching the X's and O's. Being able to create a winning edge on a football team while also trying to minimize risk is not easy. Well, it's not easy for me. And that's because I'm not Mike Tomlin.

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