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Football character and Steelers rookie Gerod Holliman: The blame game

Is it fair to criticize Holliman for poor football character? There could be other factors behind some of his on-field weaknesses that the Steelers can remedy.

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Domestic violence and driving under the influence would be considered marks of poor character for spectators and NFL players alike, but the concept of football character is not really generalizable to the common man (or, in this case, woman).

For example, if I’m cooking breakfast and decide not to run the garbage disposal after I throw eggshells in the sink, I’m probably not going to be accused of having poor Kitchen Character.

Football character is a different animal. Take the case of the Steelers seventh-round draft pick Gerod Holliman. Amid increasing concern about the state of the Steelers secondary, there has been much speculation about Holliman. He is both a ball hawk and poor tackler, a consternating combination of traits.

His deficiencies, however, have not just been framed in terms of physical ability. Holliman’s draft report slammed his football character. It was fraught with phrases such as "halfhearted," "limited effort," "doesn’t always play at full speed or with max effort" and "lack of football character."

Is that fair? I would argue that attacks on Holliman's football character are unfair and uninformed. There could be more at play than simply "lack of football character."


Holliman has a documented shoulder injury. It is not a sign of poor effort or sissification to instinctively protect that injury. In fact, it is a smart move to take care of one’s body.


Holliman was red-shirted due to injury and the subsequent year played in the shadows of New York Jets 2014 first-round pick Calvin Pryor. While there was the opportunity for mentorship from a stellar athlete, Pryor’s presence on the field necessitated Holliman’s presence on the bench. Even players who see more playing time in college are not usually ready for the NFL on draft day. Mike Tomlin said of Holliman, "He’s got room for improvement (as a tackler), but none of these prospects are finished products." Inexperience just means that there is more potential and room for improvement.

Coaching and Environment

I cannot speak to Holliman’s relationship with his coaches, but players do not exist in a vacuum. No athlete devotes his entire week to playing X-Box and spending time up in the club only to show up on game day magically ready to make an impact. Behind every player are countless hours of practice and coaches, and those coaches aren’t just responsible for players’ physical development and overall game strategy. They also play a role in so-called intangibles, the same intangibles for which Holliman was criticized in his scouting report. If there were indeed issues with Holliman’s effort and motivation, then it would be up to the coach to provide that player the support and resources to improve in that area. It is part of a coach’s job.

There were also some disruptive turnovers on the Louisville coaching staff in 2014 when Charlie Strong accepted an offer to coach at the University of Texas and took key members of his coaching staff with him. Disruptions in the coach-athlete relationship can have a negative impact on performance.  I am not sure the nature of Holliman’s relationship with Strong, but at the very least, the changes in coaching personnel could have had an effect on what scouts presumptuously labeled "lack of football character."


In some clips where Holliman appears to be playing halfheartedly, there could be other explanations. What was his assignment? Was there supposed to be help underneath? Sure, this doesn't explain his ineffective tackling technique, but it could provide a more benign explanation for what scouts labeled "limited effort."


Failure to perform is not always indicative of character flaw, laziness, or lack of motivation. Holliman has amazing strengths along with some troubling deficiencies, which is to be expected of a late-round pick. Viewing his weaknesses as a character flaw, however, oversimplifies a problem that could be due to a wide range of systemic, physical, interpersonal and personal issues. Injury, inexperience, issues with coaching personnel, and confusion are not marks of poor character.

Maurkice Pouncey recently praised Offensive Line Coach Mike Munchak for not employing a one-size-fits-all approach to coaching. I would argue that if an athlete is criticized for having poor football character, it is due to combination of causes that often have nothing to do with personal shortcomings. Let’s give Holliman the benefit of the doubt in terms of football character and assume that the Steelers program and coaching staff can help him maximize his potential on and off the field. After all, the Steelers have an excellent track record when it comes to player development.