Mike Tomlin's 5 Biggest Mistakes of the 2013-14 Season
There are a multitude of reasons the Pittsburgh Steelers have a dismal 2-6 record, including an awful offensive line, an inconsistent running game and a defense that is showing its age. It is officially time to acknowledge another reason for this decline, though: the coaching of Mike Tomlin.
Tomlin is a Super Bowl-winning coach who has done a great job since he became Pittsburgh's head coach in 2007. But there is no way to discuss this team's deficiencies without starting with the coaching.
Sure, the personnel is certainly to blame as well. It is hard to execute even the most expertly devised game plans without the right people to properly execute them.
But Tomlin has done just enough wrong this season that he has to take some of the heat for the way his team is playing. There are only so many times you can watch Ben Roethlisberger get sacked or one of the running backs or receivers cough up the ball before you might start to think that the root of the problem could lie with the coach's game plan.
Tomlin has earned enough good will in Pittsburgh that no matter how badly this season ends, his job security probably will not be affected. Considering the fact the Steelers have only had three head coaches since 1969, the organization probably does not want to give up on Tomlin and tarnish its track record of picking quality, long-term options at head coach.
With all that said, here are a few of the questionable moves Tomlin has made in 2013. You can judge for yourself whether they are forgivable mistakes or unforgivable lapses in judgment.
Challenge Flag Woes
Tomlin has never been shy about whipping out the challenge flags. He is generally not the type of coach to waste a challenge, usually picking his battles well.
But sometimes he gets a little hasty with those flags. In a 2010 game against the Baltimore Ravens, Tomlin challenged once on the opening kickoff and then again in the first quarter, leaving him without challenges for most of the game.
During Pittsburgh's Week 8 contest against the Oakland Raiders, he was similarly liberal with his challenges. He threw his flag when a would-be Heath Miller first down was ruled incomplete (this was on first down) and again to get his team possession after a potential Raiders special teams blunder.
He won the former challenge, though it is still silly in retrospect because Pittsburgh had two more downs to work with, thus making the challenge not particularly useful. Tomlin lost the second challenge and again left the Steelers without any more for a large portion of the game.
Grantland's Bill Barnwell said it best:
Again, Tomlin found himself out of challenges with 34 minutes of challengeable time left in the game. You just can't let that happen to yourself, especially with so much time left to go. Low-reward challenges in the first half seem tempting, but the risk-reward opportunity just isn't there.
This is low on the list of Tomlin transgressions, but it is worth noting. Tomlin might want to be more careful with his challenges going forward if he does not want to coach himself out of a job.
Isaac Redman Is Not the Answer
It took Tomlin way too long to figure out that Isaac Redman was dead weight. The guy may have had some past success with the Steelers, but he did literally nothing with his opportunity to start in 2013.
Big Ben has earned 49 rushing yards on 12 attempts and Antonio Brown 19 yards on four rushes. Thank god the Steelers dumped Redman before he could do any more damage.
Le'Veon Bell has added a nice spark to Pittsburgh's offense, rushing for 282 yards and three touchdowns since the Steelers activated him midseason. Those numbers will not set the league on fire, but compared to Redman, they look like superhuman statistics.
Bell, Felix Jones and Jonathan Dwyer have been serviceable in the backfield for the Steelers (though there is always room for improvement). Tomlin eventually recognized that Redman was not fitting into the equation at all, though it was a bit too late for the patience of Steelers Nation.
Mismanaging the Offensive Line
This one is not entirely Tomlin's fault. Pittsburgh's offensive line has been in shambles for as long as this Steelers fan can remember (basically since Alan Faneca left in 2007).
Plus, that line has been the victim of some terrible luck lately. Exhibit A: losing Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey for the season to an ACL injury on the first drive of Week 1.
But Tomlin can still be credited for some of the offensive line struggles, mainly for drafting poorly along the line and his weird shuffling this season.
Mike Adams, a former second-round pick, was benched earlier this season for his inability to do pretty much anything valuable. He is close to reaching bust status, which does not help Tomlin's case here.
To be fair, he also drafted David DeCastro, who has been solid when healthy. But the rest of the offensive line (minus replacement center Fernando Velasco) is playing out of position, which might explain why it cannot keep any pass-rusher away from Big Ben.
The mess of an offensive line may not be entirely Tomlin's fault, but he could have done more to get it to a more serviceable level. As it stands, he has to shoulder at least some of the responsibility for Pittsburgh's offensive line issues.
Playing Big Ben Late in a Blowout
That 55-31 loss to the New England Patriots was depressing and demoralizing for the Steelers and Steelers Nation. But lost amid all the chaos was the fact that Tomlin never took Big Ben out, even when the game was clearly out of reach.
With 2:41 left in the game and the Steelers down 24, Tomlin put Big Ben back on the field. It is a questionable decision where the rewards do not outweigh the potential risks, especially when there is always a real threat of Big Ben's season ending with any hit he takes.
Tomlin explained his decision in the postgame press conference:
Because we have to get better and those are snap opportunities to get better. We aren’t turning it down. We aren’t running away from anything. We had the opportunity to work and get better so we did that. The guys that were healthy were going to stay on the grass and finish the game.
This strikes me as kind of nonsensical. How will an extra two minutes and 41 seconds of playing time improve this sad team? Is it really worth risking your starters' health just to get them a few more snaps?
I really just do not understand Tomlin's logic here. If Big Ben had gotten hurt, Tomlin might have legitimately been placed on the hot seat going forward.
Tomlin: Think about that the next time you play around with your best player's health during a blowout.
This was a problem that started with owner Dan Rooney and trickled down to infect the entire Steelers organization. The worst thing a professional sports franchise can become is complacent, and that is exactly how the Steelers found themselves in their current mess.
Too many years of saying, "We are the Pittsburgh Steelers, we will be okay," has led to a team that is anything but okay. Pittsburgh got cocky, assuming its older players could still play like 25-year-olds and that any young player wearing black and gold would automatically be God's gift to football.
Unfortunately, that is just not how it works. Instead, what Pittsburgh has found itself with is a team that might be able to beat the occasional bad team (cough Baltimore Ravens cough), but also has the potential to lose every game it plays.
I cannot remember a Pittsburgh Steelers team in the last decade-and-a-half that actively forced me to lower my expectations. These guys are doing everything in their power to force me to jump on the Pittsburgh Penguins bandwagon, which is saying something because I could usually not care less about hockey.
Tomlin fell victim to the complacency effect for too long, refusing to go after free agents and drafting middling talent. It appears he has finally snapped out of that funk, though, even going as far as to take away his players' toys.
But for Tomlin, it is too little too late. He cannot escape the fact he became part of the destructive cycle of complacency, and the Steelers are now feeling the effects of years of that dangerous attitude.