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Examining the evaluation process of assistant coaches in the Mike Tomlin era

Taking a look at the Steelers’ coaching staff under head coach Mike Tomlin.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers Rookie Minicamp Handout Photo-USA TODAY Sports

Much attention has been given this off-season to the player turnover in Pittsburgh. With new starters at every position along the offensive line, at running back, outside linebacker, cornerback, slot corner and perhaps even punter, the Steelers will certainly look different when they line up in Buffalo on September 12 than they did when we saw them in the Divisional playoff last January.

While the turnover is noteworthy, it may not be the biggest challenge in terms of new personnel the team will have to navigate. There have been significant changes to the coaching staff as well, particularly on the offensive side of the football.

Matt Canada’s elevation to coordinator has been well-documented. Canada’s hiring spurred the addition of Matt Tomsho, a Canada sidekick, as well. Tomsho was on staff at several of Canada’s stops as a college coordinator — North Carolina State, Pitt, LSU, Maryland — and will assist him as a quality control coach in Pittsburgh.

Additionally, Alfredo Roberts has been hired as the new tight ends coach while Adrian Klemm has been tapped to rebuild the line. Canada, Tomsho, Roberts and Klemm join an offensive staff that includes Mike Sullivan (quarterbacks), Eddie Faulkner (running backs) and Ike Hilliard (wide receivers). Only Faulkner has more than one year of experience in his current role in Pittsburgh. How quickly the Steelers can get their offensive coaches on the same page will be just as important as getting their personnel to gel.

The turnover of the offensive staff raises some interesting questions about the hiring and firing practices under Mike Tomlin. On the defensive side of the football, the staff has been relatively stable. Since taking the reins in 2007, Tomlin has had just two coordinators (Dick LeBeau, Keith Butler) while John Mitchell (defensive line/assistant head coach) has been with the team since 1994. Jerry Olsavsky has been the head linebackers coach for six years and was promoted from within to succeed Butler when Butler became DC. Only in the secondary has the turnover been fairly frequent (Grady Brown, Tom Bradley, Carnell Lake, Ray Horton).

Conversely, on offense, coaches have come and gone far more quickly. Tomlin has had four OC’s, five wide receiver coaches, five quarterback coaches and six offensive line coaches. Tight end (2) and running back (3) are the only position groups where there has been relative stability.

Why has the turnover of the offensive staff been greater than on defense under Tomlin? What does this say about how Tomlin evaluates coaches? What considerations exist when he hires and fires people?

These are interesting questions I hadn’t thought much about until loyal BTSC reader NCSteeler brought them up in the comments’ section of a recent article I wrote on how the Steelers might rebuild their line. His comments were in regard to the hiring of Klemm to replace Shaun Sarrett. Here is some of what NCSteeler wrote:

These are great questions. To answer them, I will draw upon my experience as a high school head coach and on my observations of how the Steelers have done things under Mike Tomlin. I can’t say with certainty how the Steelers operate, and I don’t claim any inside information that leads to my conclusions. But, as a fan and close observer of the franchise for over 40 years, I’ve become pretty familiar with “the Steeler Way.” And as a head coach, even at the high school level, I have some experience with hiring and firing assistants and the considerations that go into those decisions. Here, then, are some thoughts.

There are obvious pre-requisites when hiring assistant coaches, most of which are similar to hiring employees in any field. Competence, professionalism, reliability, loyalty, self-motivation and an ability to work well with others are expected. Beyond that, there are specific considerations that may factor in. Do you desire a coach who specializes in a particular system or scheme? Do you want guys to help build team culture? Are you looking for youth or experience?

To the latter question, many of the coaches in my own program are in their 40s, 50s and 60s. We have over 150 years of coaching experience collectively and know how to teach the game. We are, however, old. Our days of chest-bumping players, jumping into drills to demonstrate technique and serving as cheerleaders are getting fewer and farther between. So, while meeting this off-season to self-evaluate, we decided to recruit some younger coaches who could fill those roles. I eventually added two former players to serve as volunteer assistants. They are both in their early 20s, just finished college football careers and are, to put it mildly, excitable. Like “dog-chasing-car” excitable. They will serve as interns-of-sorts, learning the finer points of the profession while cranking up the juice at practice and bringing an energy and ability to relate to our players that is different from what our older coaches offer.

In Pittsburgh, many of Mike Tomlin’s recent hires have targeted these types of specific needs. They have been, for lack of a better term, problem-solving hires. Todd Haley, for example, was rumored to be too control-oriented, which led to his up-and-down relationship with Ben Roethlisberger. With Roethlisberger increasingly the focal point of the Steelers’ offense, Tomlin desired a coordinator who was less a commander who dictated the offense to Roethlisberger and more a collaborator with whom Roethlisberger could join forces.

Long-time assistant Randy Fichtner, of whom Roethlisberger was fond, was determined to be that man. Fichtner’s offense turned out to be too bland, however, so Tomlin replaced him with a coach known for his creativity and outside-the-box thinking in Canada. Finding the sweet spot in terms of both design and the ability to work with the offense’s most important player has driven Tomlin’s most recent OC hires.

Up front, the changes have fit specific needs as well. Jack Bicknell Jr. was hired in 2013 to implement a zone blocking scheme. The results were terrible. While Bicknell knew the scheme, he could not teach or communicate it well (cardinal rule in coaching: it’s not what you know, it’s what you can get your players to execute). To remedy the problem, Tomlin recruited one of the best teachers in the business in Mike Munchack. A similar situation occurred this off-season. When Sarrett’s position-blocking approach flopped, Tomlin promoted Klemm with the mandate the line be more physical.

While Tomlin has regularly addressed problems that have arisen with his assistants, this hasn’t always meant firing them, even when their units have not performed well. Rather, he has often calculated whether he believes the problems the Steelers are experiencing can be remedied with the coach in question remaining on staff. Given how the Steelers prefer continuity, it’s my contention Tomlin would rather retain and repair than cut a coach loose and hire someone else.

We saw this two years ago with Keith Butler. Following the dismantling of Butler’s defense by opposing offenses in 2017 and 2018, calls for a new DC were rampant. Tomlin was not blind to the problem but he refused to be reactionary. Instead, he brought on Teryl Austin, a former DC, as a consultant to assist Butler. In short, Tomlin believed getting Butler the help he needed was a more prudent move than firing him altogether. That turned out to be a wise decision, as the Steelers have produced Top 5 defenses in back-to-back seasons since bringing Austin on board.

Firing someone is never easy. Coaches spend inordinate amounts of time together. They get to know one another personally and often become friends. In my own experience, I had to make the difficult decision to fire someone with whom I’d been close for a long time. We’d grown up together. He’d built a stellar resume: star quarterback at a successful FCS college, assistant coach on a championship high school program and mentor to a future NFL quarterback. I needed an offensive coordinator when I took the head coaching job. I thought he’d be a perfect hire.

Unfortunately, we were a rebuilding program at the time and he was used to competing for championships. He didn’t have the patience required for our situation and his frustrations poisoned his coaching. I hated to let him go — I knew it would mean the end of our friendship — but he wasn’t the right fit for our program. I made the difficult decision to move on.

When I informed my athletic director, he told me it was a good move. In fact, he said he was planning to recommend I do it. He wasn’t going to force the decision on me, but from what he’d observed, he did not feel continuing on with this coach would be productive. Looking back, it was easy to read between the lines. If I allowed our program to continue down that path, I would be the one to pay the price in the end.

In Pittsburgh, the Rooney family is firmly in Mike Tomlin’s corner. That doesn’t mean, however, they allow him carte blanche with the franchise. To NCSteeler’s question, while the Steelers have never, to my knowledge, used any outside sources to evaluate their coaches, they have made recommendations, some publicly, about their desired course. Art Rooney II’s comments about how the Steelers must run the football better in 2021 was more mandate than suggestion. Tomlin has gone to great lengths this off-season to pay heed. Similar input from the front office was likely conferred in determining what to do about Butler in 2018.

As for the position coaches, Tomlin almost certainly has broad decision-making latitude. While he may consult with advisors like Austin or Ray Sherman, who was in Pittsburgh briefly as an interim coach, the evaluation of his assistants falls largely on Tomlin’s shoulders. Delegation is one of the most important aspects of being a head coach. If the assistants to which the head coach delegates cannot deliver results, it is on the head coach to remedy the situation.

Finally, there is the question as to why Tomlin has had more turnover with his offensive staff than his defensive staff. I’ll offer two thoughts on that matter. First, because Tomlin is trained as a defensive coach (he was a DC before being hired by the Steelers), he is probably more certain of what he wants on that side of the ball. That certainty may provide him a better understanding of what to look for, how to problem-solve and how to evaluate his defensive assistants.

Second, while the defense has undergone evolution in Tomlin’s tenure, it has been an evolution that has occurred to address changes in team personnel (the retirement of Troy Polamalu) or broader changes in the game itself (sub-package defenses to combat increased use of 11 personnel on offense). On offense, however, the evolution has coincided with Roethlisberger. Fitting the offense to Roethlisberger’s development has largely driven its direction. This has required a delicate calculation of Tomlin’s offensive hires. Finding the right coaches to work with Big Ben as he has moved from stage to stage in his career has not always been easy, thus complicating the process of solidifying an offensive staff.

One thing about Tomlin’s hiring practices is certain: by and large, they have been successful. A head coach is only as good as the men around him. Tomlin’s career winning percentage of .650 is 8th in NFL history among coaches who have won at least 100 games. This suggests the men he’s hired, no matter the process, have been pretty darn good.