X

Mike Tomlin Is Uniquely Human in NFL Coaching World That Often Is Not

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 20, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 24: Mike Tomlin, head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, stands on the sidelines during the second quarter of the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 24, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

So many people have gotten it all wrong when it comes to Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. So horribly, terribly wrong.

Around the league, a number of head and assistant coaches have privately criticized Tomlin for being too close to his players and not enough of a disciplinarian. This was epitomized, in some ways, by Terry Bradshaw's comments on FS1's Speak for Yourself in late December that Tomlin is more of a cheerleader than a great head coach.

That criticism was given new life this week in the wake of the uproar surrounding Antonio Brown's Facebook video.

But that was never true. In fact, the opposite was.

"That locker room is a circus, and he actually does a solid job containing it," one coaching friend of Tomlin's said to Bleacher Report.

"He keeps a lid on things more than anyone knows," said an NFC coach, who is also friends with Tomlin.

"Maybe the best teacher I've ever seen," said another assistant. "Not just about football but about life."

Ryan Clark, who played for Tomlin from 2007 to 2013, knows what it's like to be in a Tomlin locker room, what players think about working for the now-10-year veteran head coach. So I asked if the notion that Tomlin had lost his locker room was wrong—if, as those above indicated, he was possibly doing a far better coaching job than most people know. Clark's answer was smart and compelling.

"He's done an excellent job in a tough spot as a black coach," Clark wrote in a message to B/R. "He wants [to be], and is more than, a coach to these young guys, and they definitely try to take advantage of that level of care and concern. Other than his Super Bowl season, I feel like this year has been his finest."

To sum up, many coaches feel that Tomlin's coaching acumen is underappreciated, that he's far from a mere cheerleader. And like others around football, they believe Tomlin isn't getting the respect he deserves.

ORCHARD PARK, NY - DECEMBER 11:  Head coach Mike Tomlin fist bumps with Antonio Brown #84 of the Pittsburgh Steelers before the game against the Buffalo Bills on December 11, 2016 at New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York. Pittsburgh defeats Buffalo 27-2
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

What Tomlin does is teach players how to be good men, and not just to be good at football, as Clark noted. Not everyone gets the message, but his attempts are consistent and sincere.

Clearly, there are players on the Steelers—not all, but some—who take advantage of the fact that Tomlin gives them more freedom to be themselves.

As we prepare to watch what may be one of the more epic AFC title games in a long time, it's important to understand that Tomlin isn't a patsy but someone who treats his players like grownups. And if those players don't get that, it's on them—not Tomlin.

When you watch the Steelers and Patriots on Sunday, you will see two different leadership styles, both successful in their own ways. New England head coach Bill Belichick keeps his emotional distance; Tomlin does the opposite. Belichick sees football more as a business with one ultimate goal; Tomlin sees football as multifaceted, where winning is important, but so is making sure young players see a larger picture.

This is no knock against Belichick, or any other coach, and there are nuances to both approaches. But it isn't a stretch to say that Belichick sees players as chess pieces, whereas Tomlin sees them as flesh and blood.

FOXBORO, MA - NOVEMBER 13:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots reacts with head coach Bill Belichick during the fourth quarter of a game against the Seattle Seahawks at Gillette Stadium on November 13, 2016 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Bil
Billie Weiss/Getty Images

The Belichick approach creates a sort of self-sustaining machinery with quarterback Tom Brady as the warp core. It churns out greatness and titles like cookies on a conveyor belt. Most players, whether rookies or veteran free agents, join the Patriots and are immediately assimilated. This is the "Patriot Way."

There's a potential weakness in that plan, though: Sometimes the human element isn't there. Pieces are removed and replaced like broken parts on a carburetor.

In many ways, Tomlin is the 21st-century version of John Madden.

Madden remains one of the more underrated coaches in the history of the sport. That's hard to say about a guy who's in the Hall of Fame and has the most successful video game of all time named after him, but it's true. Even for a man with a career coaching record of 103-32-7, his greatest accomplishment may have been in managing some of the most flamboyant players this league has ever seen.

Madden's Raiders drank, partied and chased women constantly. But when the practices began, and the games began, it was all business. Madden knew what he had. There were rules, but there was also a human element. 

This is what Tomlin does, and it's equally a smart approach. 

The downside, as we saw this week, is what happened with Brown. 

Oakland Raiders head coach John Madden and quarterback Ken Stabler on the sidelines of a 27-17 win over the San Diego Chargers on October 14, 1973 at San Diego Stadium in San Diego, California. (Photo by Richard Stagg/Getty Images)
Richard Stagg/Getty Images

If Brown or other younger players don't listen to Tomlin, that's not on Tomlin. If they don't know not to go live from a locker room on Facebook, that's not on Tomlin. If Tomlin, a smart human being, gives them advice on how to be a smart human being, and they don't listen, that's not on Tomlin.

Ken Stabler once told me he wished he'd had the maturity to listen to the advice given to him by his coach at Alabama, Bear Bryant, at the time Bryant gave it to him. Years later, Stabler always reflected on what Bryant told him—to trust your coaches.

The same thing likely will happen with some of the younger Pittsburgh players. Many of them listen to Tomlin. Some need to listen to him more. A few others will regret they didn't.

So many people have gotten it all wrong when it comes to Mike Tomlin. So horribly, terribly wrong.      

         

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.