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The Effectiveness of Mike Tomlin: Teaching young men to endure better and worse

Two Questions I Would Really Like To Ask Coach Tomlin.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Every fan loves that feeling when you catch the head coach in a mistake. Guys like Mike Tomlin make a gazillion dollars and have legions hanging on their every word. How cool are you and I if we could do the job better? I daresay that most of us do it in much the same way: We pick some detail like a blown timeout or a stupid call, emphasize his role in that decision, and then (rightly) point out that he got it wrong while we were yelling the right answer out loud at our TV. We win. He loses. All is right with the world, except for suffering through the consequences of that blankety-blank blunder.

Every honest fan also knows that it’s also a combination of fantasy and envy when push comes to shove. If we know enough to see the mistake, we also know that all these details are little more than a typo in a really big article. They matter, but Coach Tomlin’s skill at attracting, managing and retaining strong personalities in the coaching room matters a whole lot more. So do his ability to manage number-nerds in the front office, egos at every level, and story-hungry reporters desperate for a headline. The sheer number of vital, do-or-die tasks may be the hardest part of the job. That said, there are two particular coaching challenges that may be the most important of all. Alas, but I doubt you’ll ever hear a question asked about either one, let even find a coach who’d give the details we’d really need to hear. Here’s the first:

1. “Coach Tomlin, you’ve got some young players like Artie Burns and Brian Allen who haven’t managed to ‘get it’ at the NFL level. You’ve also got some young men who seem to be finally – finally! – turning that corner, like Bud Dupree and Sean Davis. I get that everyone is unique but you’ve been at this a long time. You’ve got to have some teaching tricks that have both worked and failed more often than I’d think. What are the carrots and sticks that have worked for you and your Steelers? Open up a bit and share!”

It’s hard to succeed in the NFL and just as hard to keep succeeding after you first start moving up the depth chart. The instant you do, world renowned experts respond by poring over every snap you’ve ever played, looking in ultra-slow motion for any flaw an opponent could exploit. Imagine if people did that to you in your job? Eek, eepers and egad. And then if other people put your every lapse on looping reruns for prime time, national TV.

It would have driven me batty even if I had that level of native talent. For one, I’m a private person and public humiliation would send me into a rage. Strike one. I’m also a man who screams at himself in private. When I search for perfection it always involves some choice adjectives about the fool who made [those] errors. But we all know what happens to NFL players who carry one bad play in to the next one. Strike two. I also get angry at being frustrated, and what could be more frustrating than discovering you’ve got some tiny, subtle, deeply ingrained habit that opponents have learned to target? The proverbial “hole in your swing”? Not much. Strike two-and-a-half. Not a great way to start my new career!

This is getting embarrassing so let’s pick on Artie Burns instead. I’ve read, watched and asked a lot of questions about the young Mr. Burns and all that research has convinced me he suffers from one of two problems, or maybe a bit of both.

First, he may be the version of me who gets so wrapped up overthinking things that it creates the occasional “Doh!” moment where thought and reality lose their link. You know, like imagining he’s got Safety or Linebacker support against Tyler Boyd even though he’d never make that mistake in a classroom. How the heck do you “coach up” a pure, mental blunder? If you yell at the kid he’ll only push that much harder at himself, and that could make the “Doh!” moments even more common. But how can he learn if you shrug it off and say, “It’ll be okay” like Mommy patting your booboo? I have no answer but Coach Mike is a famous expert. “Coach, can you share?”

Second, it’s possible that Artie he has some tiny set of habits that helped in college but hurt in the pros. This is one I’ve dealt with in another context, so I can give a concrete example. Fact #1: if you glide forward as you throw a jab, your hand speed and your foot speed will combine; and since feet are faster than hands, a boxer can more than double the speed of his punch by stepping in as he throws it. Fact #2: top level boxers have skills and reflexes so amazing that they can time that movement well enough to hit you as you move; which more than doubles the impact of fist on face, and leads to deleterious results. Thus a little bit of lunging - especially smooth and subtle lunging - will definitely help you climb the ladder toward success. But the same habit will get you killed against the champions you want to face at the top.

FWIW I know of only two answers to this dilemma in the martial arts context: you must either be such a dominant physical genius that no one can match your speed (and then quit before you age), or you must tear down the habits that got you to success and then rebuild a sounder foundation (while surviving the dip as you abandon what used to work). Good frickin’ luck with either if you’re already competing at the top of the world.

I’m actually a pretty good teacher for this kind of thing. I can both see and teach the essential body dynamics. But Mike Tomlin and his coaches are among the best in the world at it. “Coach, can you share?”

It really is hard to overcome failure in the NFL regardless of your natural gifts. [Cough cough] Justin Gilbert [cough]. It may be even harder to conquer the problems that come with success.

2. “Coach, you’ve got a lot of first contract players who have shined right away, like Juju Smith-Schuster, TJ Watt, and others we could name. You drafted them very young and some have never had to overcome the failures that chased the men we critiqued above. How are you going to help them mature as pros and deal with the problems of success?”

We all remember what happened to Ben. Enter from stage left: A young bachelor as rich as Croesus, famous as an all-star QB, leading an NFL team of grown men, and forced to choose among the beautiful women begging for his attention… Exit on stage right: A young man drowning in disgrace who barely avoided jail time. I’m not throwing stones. I’ve often admitted how likely I would have been to fail in much the same way. The point is this: Big Ben nailed the how-to-win part, but he flunked the how-to-deal-with-winning follow up. And he isn’t alone in that kind of situation.

Pick your diva receiver, spoiled brat runner, crazy man linebacker, or what-have-you and you’ll see the same thing play out with disturbing regularity. How could it be different? Add it up: (i) men who are far too young to have true emotional maturity; (ii) a national stage to fill their heads with constant praise; (iii) the undefeated ego of someone who’s always won regardless; (iv) pockets with infinite money; and of course (v) pants bursting with [you know what]. Do the math and make your prediction.

It’s amazing how many of them actually stay grounded.

Speaking of which, what does that really mean? “Stay grounded” and “remember your roots” are awful pieces of advice – downright absurd! – for a lot of the young men we’re talking about. Antonio Brown grew up on the “Street Of Death” in Miami’s worst slum, without a father, evicted at 16 by his mother, and often living out of a car while trying to get through High School. Many of the “friends” who helped him then are the very sorts of people an NFL star needs to avoid. With the proviso that he also has to shun the sort of snobbery that forgets what brought him out of that pit.

Catch-22 much? [And no, that is not a play call!]

Nor is AB the only one. Artie Burns could give him a run for his money. Chuks Okorafor formed his character as an immigrant/refugee on the run from dire poverty in at least three different African hellholes. At least he had a family. None of these are unique stories in the NFL, or even particularly odd. We could make a list as long as your arm from all-stars alone.

Yes, the Steelers front office is both famous for and obsessive about “character” issues. Even so, talent and need can both have trump cards to play (Martavis Bryant, Chris Rainey), it isn’t possible to get that right every time, people can change for the worse as well as the better, and late round picks (hi AB!) may blossom in both talent and problems. As the old saying goes, you can’t play NFL football with a team of choir boys.

So I would love to ask Coach Mike this question too. “How do you help these kids to deal with success? My sincere compliments on your track record to date, but please share some tricks of the trade.”

No one will ask the questions. I doubt he’d be willing to answer them, at least not on camera. But if I ever get him talking over a dinner table it’s this sort of thing I’d most want to explore. I truly believe his answers could make me a better man.