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Coaching (Ac)Counts: Mike Tomlin and the Steelers Coaching Staff

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in which the author makes the case that Mike Tomlin's successes have come with Bill Cowher's players. Oh, wait...

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

I mentioned in a comment on an Ivan Cole article, right about midseason, that I had found this august website almost unbearable after Steelers' losses this season, not because of the articles but because of so many of the comments. I realize there are options to deal with this, including, of course, just not reading the comments. But some sort of morbid fascination kept drawing my eyes there. Would the voices of reason finally prevail? Was there enough sense to go around?

Apparently not, because, against all evidence to the contrary, there are still voices calling for everyone's firing. The Big Three (Head Coach Mike Tomlin, Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley, and Defensive Coordinator Dick LeBeau) are the most targeted, naturally. But Mike Tomlin seems to come in for a special sort of ire.

In some ways, this is understandable. I'm sure Tomlin would echo President Truman in saying "the buck stops here." None of us are familiar enough with the inner workings of the Steelers organization to say for sure whether the buck does stop there or not. There are signs that perhaps the buck should, on occasion, get pushed up another level. For instance, it clearly wasn't Mike Tomlin who wanted Bruce Arians out, and one got the impression Tomlin's was not the final voice in the hire of Todd Haley.

Nor can deficiencies in drafting be entirely laid at Tomlin's feet. He is undoubtedly heavily dependent upon the scouting department to at least reduce the field of candidates to a manageable number. And it's worth remembering the Steelers weren't the only team to miss some of the later-round gems some on this site have lamented the Steelers passing on. 31 other teams also passed on C.J. Anderson in the 2013 draft, just for instance.

Nor does any team, even the Patriots, have an unblemished record in the draft. It just isn't possible to predict a) how a player will make the transition to the NFL, b) whether he will be healthy enough to play, and c) whether he is smart enough and hard-working enough to excel in a league where everyone was the absolute best at what they do at some point in their lives.

Nor, for that matter, can one pronounce on what constitutes a "miss" in the draft nearly as soon as many fans wish to do. A lot of people have called Cameron Heyward a bust in the past few years. Anyone still using that term? How about David DeCastro? Especially for the Steelers, with a management philosophy which takes the long view, a year or two is generally way too soon to declare a draft pick a bust.

But enough of the draft. I want to talk about the coaching. A couple of items I ran across made me think it was time. And although my remarks will focus on Tomlin, as he takes much of the heat and is the most visible face of the coaching staff, much will apply down the line.

What set this off, I suppose, was a comment by Steel_curtain76 to Neal's "Takeaways" article after Sunday's game:

I figured the Kelce challenge [the challenge as to whether Kelce had control of the ball through the catch] did double duty as a timeout. Tomlin figured that they may not win it, but they needed a timeout anyway to break the momentum. I thought it was very savvy.

Whether this was Tomlin's thought process or not, I was struck by what might be a different way to game the whole challenge process. I thought I remembered that Tomlin's win percentage for challenges is pretty good, and found this article which confirms it. (Given that Tomlin's picture actually heads the article, the conclusion was not unexpected:)

Since 1999, coaches throw a challenge flag an average of 0.39 times per game and on the whole, just 47.6 percent of those challenges are overturned. Maybe that's part of the reason Chicago Bears head coach Marc Trestman challenged just five plays in his entire rookie season last year.

However, there are plenty of coaches who can't get rid of the red flag quick enough. Denver Broncos head coach John Fox leads all active coaches with 110 career challenges but only 36.4 percent of those challenges were successful. Meanwhile, Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, has the best challenge success percentage (54.5) of any active coach with more than 50 career challenges.

And if he's even occasionally throwing the flag on plays he doesn't think he's likely to win, that would make his success rate even more impressive. It is currently under .500 for this season, and perhaps this is part of the reason.

I realize that was a rather long time to spend on one small detail, but the point is, perhaps what we think we see isn't necessarily what's actually going on. This would seem like a rather self-evident proposition, but we often need to be reminded of things which seem as if they should be obvious.

One good example of that is the whole "player's coach" thing. Anytime the Steelers aren't doing well, which has, of course, been a frequent thing during the rebuilding process, someone starts yakking about how Tomlin is soft, and doesn't run a tight ship. This is, of course, merely a preliminary shot across the bow, prior to demonstrating what a tough guy Bill Cowher was, and how a team who plays for a soft coach like Tomlin is never going to be as disciplined as one run by a tough guy like Cowher.

The only problem with this theory is, the players who have played for both men are unanimous in stating that Tomlin runs a much more disciplined ship, and always has, right from the first. Frankly, given that Tomlin wasn't much older than some of his more veteran players in his first few seasons, anything else would have been a disaster.

I believe Tomlin understands what effective leaders know—you have to be the top dog. You don't have to shout, you don't have to have the veins popping out of your forehead, you can even be rational and friendly for the most part, but no one can be in any doubt as to who is calling the shots. And once this is established, in my experience it is actually counterproductive to rant and rave, because after a while no one takes you seriously, and you've got nowhere else to go.

And tied to this, one thing which makes up for a multitude of leadership sins is that your men (or women) have to believe you care about them as individuals. The picture of Mike Tomlin kissing Ike Taylor on the head as he walked off the field with a broken arm will stay with me for a very long time.

Another thing which typifies a great leader is one who learns from his or her mistakes. As my sig line shows, Mike Tomlin aspires to be this sort of leader. He has shown this season in particular, in my opinion, the ability to diagnose a potential problem and work on it until it is fixed, with the proviso that you can't fix everything at once, especially when you're playing a bunch of inexperienced players.

This Tribune Review item illustrates well this aspect of leadership:

The Steelers went through a red-zone competition period during Friday's practice with the offense and defense splitting the first six plays. On the seventh - with the ball placed at the 3-yard line - the Steelers defense stopped their offense.

It was a scenario that played out very similarly against the Chiefs when Timmons stopped Jamaal Charles on a fourth-down run in the third quarter inside the red zone.

"That fourth-and-one play was very similar," Mitchell said. "That goes back to coach and guys knowing how to handle that situation because we are in them so much."

Another example of working on something specific in a non-standard way was Tomlin's response early in the season after the Steelers were taking a number of bone-headed penalties. Instead of yelling that the floggings would continue until morale improved, he brought in a refereeing crew (I presume at the team's expense) to referee practices. The first week helped, but not enough for Tomlin, so back came the crew a week or two later. I thought this was a creative way to get the message across, and also put the onus on the referees to demonstrate how they were likely to call things.

The recent Tomlin comment I have loved the very most was this one, as reported by Gene Collier of the Post-Gazette:

[Ramon Foster] didn't like some after-the-whistle jostling on a Shaun Suisham field goal, got called for unnecessary roughness and essentially set up the Chiefs at midfield in a game that was far from decided.

I wondered if that kind of too-typical reaction might have the potential to stop these Steelers well short of the Mississippi on that trip to Arizona [and asked Mike Tomlin as much.]

"We're not going to apologize for caring," Tomlin said. "We're not."

Ike Taylor noted this week just how much Mike Tomlin cares in his interview on Steelers.com:

Interviewer: Have you ever seen Coach T fired up like he was (after the taunting penalty)? I think you had to intervene, didn't you?

Taylor: Oh man, he was out of his body. But it's like a father trying to protect his kids. Same type of situation. Or like a mother. But on game day Coach T's a totally different person. He gets into the matrix.

Having been on the sideline, I've had the opportunity to watch Coach T..., watch Coach T make calls, understand the game, get a feel for the game. It's been nice. Coach T has a great vision for the game, and he trusts himself. And nine times out of nine, man, his instincts are right.

As it happens, a lot of this has come from Taylor, but I think you could easily get the same response from anyone in the locker room. For instance, one of the young 'uns, Le'Veon Bell, was lauding Tomlin and the way he felt he was coached.

And this goes down through the staff. The panel on a recent Steelers Live broadcast was admiring the way Jerry Olafsky dealt with his charges in training camp. Everyone is blown away by the job Mike Munchak has done with the offensive line.

And one coach I want to mention in particular is Richard Mann, the wide receivers coach. He came out of retirement at Mike Tomlin's urging, and I think it would be hard to fault the job he has done with rookie sensation Martavis Bryant. Bryant fell to the fourth round of the draft, despite his obvious physical gifts, because it was thought it would be quite a while before he was polished enough to see the field.

It's a tricky thing to gauge how to deal with a situation like that. You don't want to give a player more than he can handle, thus a) messing with his confidence and b) potentially compromising the point of the exercise, which is to win the game. So Mann and Offensive Coordinator Todd Haley drew up a few plays which would emphasize Bryant's strengths and had a high potential for success while not requiring a thorough grasp of the playbook or complicated route running, trained him until they thought he had them down, and we all know how that worked out. Of all of the great stories this season in terms of coaching successes, Bryant's story may be the most impressive.

Naturally Dick LeBeau comes in for his share of praise as well. Other than the knee-jerk "LeBeau's old, slow, and washed-up" crowd, the opinion mostly seems to have been that he just doesn't have sufficient talent to work with. It doesn't help that your last two first-round picks were both injured for a substantial portion of the season. And one can never predict when something goes awry in a player's head, such as purportedly happened to Cortez Allen. But with duct tape and love, LeBeau has put together a defense which, while not exactly formidable, has found ways to get off the field and minimize the bleeding. In the end, it doesn't much matter how many yards you give up if you can prevent the other team from scoring more, and faster, than your offense.

UPDATE: The traditional video of Dick LeBeau reciting "Twas the Night Before Christmas" is now posted on Steelers.com. Don't miss it : )

There is much more I could say, but I have to go get ready for the Christmas Eve service. I want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a blessed Christmas. I'll be back next week for the Happy New Year. Which it certainly will be, if the careful, methodical coaching we've seen this season culminates in a division title.