Mike Tomlin's Biggest Mistakes of 2012
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It was a season that began with so much promise for Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers. But that all faded down the stretch as the Steelers missed the playoffs for only the second time under Tomlin.
The 8-8 finish was also the worst of Tomlin’s career and there is plenty of blame to go around.
A number of injuries a key positions was too much for the Steelers to overcome, as well as some underachieving veterans. However, it wasn’t just the players that failed to come through in 2012.
Not only was 2012 Tomlin’s worst record, but it brought about some of the worst coaching decisions that he made in his career. These decisions cost the team wins in individual games and even over the entire season.
When analyzing Tomlin’s biggest mistakes of 2012, it has to be considered that decisions that plagued the team over the entire season and those that cost the Steelers potential wins were worse than those that may have just been a bad call on his part.
Here are Tomlin’s biggest mistakes of 2012.
Concerns, but Not Mistakes
Despite the offensive struggles, hiring Todd Haley was the right move.
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Tomlin made a lot of mistakes in 2012, but there are a few that shouldn’t be considered mistakes, or at worst just be considered to be concerns.
Hiring Todd Haley
In hindsight, hiring Todd Haley may not have been the best move, but in reality it was a pretty good move at the time.
The Steelers needed a change on offense and Haley was a coordinator who adjusted his scheme to fit his offensive talent. While he didn’t exactly do that, he did adjust his scheme to fit what the Steelers wanted to do this season—implement a short passing game and establish running the ball.
Say what you want about Haley’s offense now, but in the middle of the season Pittsburgh’s offense was hitting its stride and the team was one of the hottest in the NFL.
Before criticizing the hiring in Haley, keep in mind why he was hired and what he did to meet the goals of the team. It was the right move even though things did not work out to perfection.
Not Upgrading at Backup Quarterback
Which veteran free-agent quarterback should the Steelers have signed in the offseason? Which quarterback should they have taken in the draft?
It’s easy to look back and say that Tomlin should have upgraded at backup quarterback, but the Steelers appeared to be in a pretty good situation.
When he was healthy, Tomlin believed—for good reason—that Byron Leftwich was a quality backup and that Charlie Batch provided solid depth at third string. Even Jerrod Johnson provided an intriguing developmental quarterback.
Should there be some concern that Tomlin didn’t anticipate Roethlisberger getting injured—and for that matter, Leftwich as well—and the backups struggle to step in and succeed? There could be, but it was not one of his biggest mistakes.
Tomlin’s decision-making continued to struggle in 2012, particularly with his time management at the end of halves and challenges.
Too often the Steelers had to use timeouts early in the game and thus struggled with time management near the end of the half and the end of the game.
Tomlin’s questionable use of the challenge flag continues to plague him as well.
For example, Tomlin challenged a first-down ruling against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 16. While he won the challenge, the ball was inches away from a first down, which the Bengals would pick up on the next play following a defensive offside penalty.
Yes, Tomlin won the challenge, but considering all of the mistakes that the officials make on a weekly basis, it was not worth potentially losing a challenge.
There is no single biggest mistake by Tomlin for either of these areas, but they continue to be a concern.
Fake Field Goal Failure
Was Shaun Suisham a better option than Isaac Redman when the Steelers needed one year?
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Despite dominating the game, the Steelers found themselves trailing 20-17 to the New York Giants. With the ball on the Giants’ 3-yard line, the Steelers had a 4th-and-1.
As it would be expected, Tomlin sent out the field-goal unit to go for the tie, only it didn’t attempt the field goal.
Inexplicably, the Steelers faked the field goal by having holder Drew Butler toss the ball to Shaun Suisham who was supposed to run it in for a touchdown—right.
Suisham was promptly stopped for a 1-yard loss.
If you had to rank which player that the Steelers should have the ball in his hands to score a touchdown, Suisham would be dead last on that list.
If Tomlin wanted to score a touchdown, he should have had the offense on the field and handed the ball to Isaac Redman—the team’s short-yardage back. Redman was having the best game of his career and the defense was outstanding.
This call would be higher on the list, but the Steelers did manage force a three-and-out and score a touchdown on the next drive en route to a 24-20 victory.
54-Yard Field Goal Attempt at Tennessee
Steelers failed field goal against the Titans helped set up their game-winner.
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It was a game that everyone knew would come back and haunt the Steelers.
The 26-23 loss to the Tennessee Titans—who only had one win entering the game—was one of the Steelers' worst losses of the season and it came down to a questionable decision by Tomlin.
Tomlin had kicker Shaun Suisham attempt a 54-yard field goal with 54 seconds remaining in the game. The kick would come up short and the Titans promptly drove down the field to set up the game-winning field goal.
If Suisham would have made the kick, it would have been a career long. Ironically, he tied his career-long field goal earlier in the game when he converted on a 52-yard attempt. This is why Tomlin had confidence in his kicker (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
“He banged the other one pretty good,” Tomlin said. “We decided to give him a shot at it.”
While it was a noble gesture by Tomlin to give his kicker another shot, it was not a wise one considering that Suisham is not known for having a big leg. Odds were that he wasn’t going to make the kick and he didn’t.
The end result was the Steelers third blown lead in four games as their record fell to 2-3.
If Tomlin didn’t make the mistake of sending Suisham out, the Steelers at least would have been able to send the game to overtime. Anything could have happened from there, but regardless of the results, sending the game to overtime would have provided the Steelers with a better chance at winning than going for a 54-yard field goal.
Keeping the Two-Point Conversion Play in the Pocket
Tomlin decided to save his two-point conversion plays for a later game.
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The loss to the San Diego Chargers was one of the worst home losses that Steelers had at Heinz Field since the stadium opened in 2001.
While many fans wanted to put the blame on Tomlin for failing to “motivate” the team, that is a factor that cannot be measured and not an excuse for their performance.
But what did come out of that game was one of the more explicable mistakes that Tomlin made all season.
After closing the gap to 34-16, Tomlin elected to take the extra point and not go for two points. For a team that was in the playoff chase at the time, the Steelers needed to make every effort that they could, but Tomlin failed to do so when he sent out the extra point unit.
What was made this decision even worse was Tomlin’s ridiculous explanation for it (via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review).
“Until we stopped them, it was going to be insignificant,” Tomlin said. “I was holding the two-point plays for that reason and that reason only. Now, we still have them in our hip pocket. Those specialty plays, we didn’t want to put on tape unless we had an opportunity to close the gap. As you can see, we didn’t.”
Well, now Tomlin has the entire offseason to hold that two-point play in his pocket because the Steelers are sitting at home for the playoffs.
Going for two points may not have made a difference in the final outcome, but it did send a message to the team and it wasn’t a winning message.
Firing Al Everest as Special Teams Coach
Pittsburgh's special teams improved both years under Al Everest.
Teams like the Steelers do not stir the pot two weeks prior to the start of the regular season, but that is exactly what Tomlin did when he fired special teams coach Al Everest.
Everest told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that it was “over professional differences” and “it was a shocker.”
It was a shocker for everyone.
Everest helped turn the special teams into one of the league’s more respectable unit after it struggled under former special teams coach Bob Ligashesky.
The year prior to Everest being hired, the Steelers ranked 30th in special teams according to Footballoutsiders.com special teams rankings. He raised it to 16th in his first season and then ninth overall last season.
Under Amos Jones this season, Pittsburgh’s special teams fell to 17th in the league as the Steelers struggled in the return game and had some trouble covering kicks.
The biggest problems were all of the holding calls and blocks in the back on big returns. This was an issue that plagued the special teams all year. They also allowed the Chargers and Browns to easily convert on fake punts.
Tomlin should have kept Everest in place.
The special teams were moving in the right direction and all of that progress was halted with the coaching change. Whatever the “professional differences” were, they may not have been worth having a below average special teams unit.
Running Back Roulette
Rashard Mendenhall was demoted and suspended in 2012.
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Can we pick a running back and stick with them?
Apparently not considering Tomlin had running backs moving into and out of the lineup all season.
The lack of a go-to back was just one of the reasons that the Steelers struggled to establish the run this year. How could they ever develop a rhythm on the ground if Tomlin couldn’t even settle on a running back?
Over the course of the season, only Isaac Redman ran the ball at least 20 times in a game. It happened to be against the Giants when he carried the ball 26 times for 146 yards and a touchdown.
Jonathan Dwyer was the only other back to approach 20 carries in a game. He had 17 carries for 122 yards against the Cincinnati Bengals, 17 carries for 107 yards against the Washington Redskins and 19 carries for 56 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Neither player was ever able to earn the starting job from Tomlin, but neither got the treatment that Rashard Mendenhall did either.
It all started in a game against the Cleveland Browns as the Steelers’ running backs fumbled the ball an absurd seven times in a 20-14 loss.
It got to the point where when a back fumbled the ball, he got benched. It was one of the most ridiculous things that I have ever seen.
What was even more ridiculous was Tomlin’s treatment of Mendenhall as he demoted him to third string for two games and then suspended him one game for not showing up on the sidelines against the San Diego Chargers. Of course, after the suspension Tomlin gave Mendenhall 11 carries in a must-win game against the Bengals.
Tomlin’s handling of the backs was a problem for the team all season and never truly allowed them to establish a consistent running game. This definitely hurt them as they lost five of their final seven games.
53-Yard Field Goal Attempt Against Cincinnati
Suisham couldn't set the Heinz Field record for longest field goal against the Bengals.
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Field goals of 50 yards or more are a rarity at Heinz Field. In fact, the longest ever at the stadium is only 52 yards.
So why did Tomlin have Suisham attempt a 53-yard field goal into the open end of the field with just under two minutes remaining in a tied game? Didn’t they fail at this earlier in the season in a stadium that isn’t as notorious for kickers as Heinz Field?
Suisham missed the kick which set the Bengals up in fantastic field position.
Luckily for Tomlin, the defense held. Unluckily for Tomlin, Roethlisberger threw an interception on the next drive to help set up the Bengals for a win and a playoff berth.
While the Steelers didn’t lose from the missed field goal, it was still a poor decision by Tomlin. It was one that demonstrated that he didn’t learn from history. He didn’t learn from a prior mistake and that is what makes this his biggest mistake of the 2012 season.
Tomlin isn’t a young coach anymore. He is a coach who has established himself as one of the best in the league. This is why you have to question his decision to attempt such a low percentage field goal in what was the most important game of the year.
If the Steelers are going to get back to the playoffs next year, they are going to need to stay healthy and get a better effort from the players. But they will need just as much of an improvement from the head coach.
Tomlin has proven to be a quality coach when things are going right, but how about when things go wrong? The offseason will be a time for him to reflect and hopefully learn from his errors in 2012 so that he can be a better coach in 2013.