Mike Tomlin: Elite Head Coach or Jon Gruden?

Todd FlemingAnalyst IDecember 2, 2009

KANSAS CITY, MO - NOVEMBER 22: Head Coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers talks with a referee against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium on November 22, 2009 in Kansas City, Missouri.  The Chiefs defeated the Steelers 27-24.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

How many times do we hear that a team hired a young coach looking for the next Mike Tomlin? It is almost a weekly occurrence while watching a game that features a young coach.

After winning a Super Bowl in his second year, Tomlin became something of a rock star celebrity coach and is constantly credited for influencing another franchise’s hiring decisions.

I like Mike Tomlin. He exudes confidence. He seems like a first rate guy and has connected very well to the players.  He gives superb press conferences and I liked the tone he set after this week's loss, which is an important job of a head coach. 

He has had plenty of success in his early career.  And, like his predecessor, he certainly looks the part.

But, to me, the praise heaped on him and the lack of criticism directed at him seems to be out of proportion. I am not convinced he is as good of a head coach as most people give him credit for at this point in his career.

I’m concerned that he might be the equivalent of Jon Gruden, a young coach who took over a very talented roster, connected with those players in a way his predecessor no longer seemed able to do, and led them to a Super Bowl win before backsliding to a very average career before ultimately being replaced.

I hope that couldn't be further from the truth, but I, at least, think it is a real possibility.  

So, what accounts for what I believe has been over the top praise of Tomlin?

There are a few factors that account for it.

For one, the hiring was made by a nearly lionized Dan Rooney who is almost universally loved across the NFL, and sportswriting, community.

Very few people were willing to point out that he was taking a chance on a young and largely unproven coordinator, turning away from what appeared to be a more qualified candidate, at least not in a critical way. The reaction would have been a whole lot different if the hiring was made by Al Davis.

Tomlin became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. That will always result in a fair share of praise and it was certainly something to be celebrated.  It was Tomlin's team and he certainly deserves plenty of credit for it. 

But, the sportswriting community tends to overvalue the “now,” without looking at other potential trends.

We see that trend each week as sportswriters overreact to the games of that week. I think that same trend happened with Tomlin.

Another factor to be considered is Tomlin's youth.  I think this has shielded, or at least dampened, some potential criticism he may have otherwise received. 

That can at least partially explain the fact that Steelers’ fans almost universally despise offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, but very few are willing to even benignly criticize Tomlin.

Some of the play-calling has been bad. That is undeniable. But, the complete absolvement of responsibility for Tomlin is not natural. He is the head coach and should shoulder some of the blame if the fan base is unhappy with the playcalling.

Does he not have some input into the game plan?  Ultimately, if I hire an employee who can't do the job and then refuse to try and replace him, who is more at fault?  I don't think Arians should be replaced midseason, but if he is not replaced before next season, regardless of how the Steelers' finish, it will be a bad sign of things to come.    

I mildly question the decision of Tomlin not to replace Bruce Arians in the off-season.  I know it is tough to replace a coordinator after a season in which you win the Super Bowl, but I think he should have made that tough call. 

Normally, a head coach takes a fair amount of criticism if the locker room appears to be fracturing, as may be happening with the Steelers. Those stories are frequently overblown so it is hard to tell.

Still, it is a media narrative and Tomlin has not been criticized for it.

There are a few reasons that I fear Tomlin's early success could be temporary.  

For one, I have not been enamored by the drafts in the Tomlin era.  This is my biggeset area of concern. 

I realize that the ultimate responsibility for the draft rests with Kevin Colbert, but I refuse to believe that Tomlin does not have significant input into that process.

During his first draft, when it was clear that the offensive line was already showing signs of decline, the Steelers drafted linebackers with the first two picks, which appeared to be a position of relative strength. Both of those players, Lawrence Timmons and Lamarr Woodley, look to be very good and have promising careers ahead of them.

But, that still struck me as a misguided way to spend those draft picks. Last year’s draft was equally perplexing, when the Steelers drafted a running back and wide receiver, leaving their offensive line unaddressed and allowing the defensive line to get one year older without putting adequate replacements in place for grooming.

This year’s draft inspired a bit more confidence for me. At least the picks lined up with very clear needs and it is hard not to be excited about the prospects of third round pick Mike Wallace. I know there is debate about drafting the best available player versus drafting for need.

But, even at that, teams avoid obvious needs over a stretch of time at their peril.  And, no matter how good of a coach you have on the sidelines, he will not be able to overcome a string of bad drafts.

Secondly, there have been a lot of questionable decisions made by Tomlin over the course of his young career. There have been a few times where he hasn’t thrown the red flag where I thought it was warranted.

Perhaps the biggest head scratcher for me dates back to his first playoff game. With the Steelers coming back against the Jacksonville Jaguars, he elected to go for two. Very good call.

But, then a holding call moved them back ten yards making a conversion highly unlikely. Instead of kicking the extra point, he elected to still go for two.

After thinking through likely scenarios that could play out, I was screaming at the TV to kick it. It was a terrible decision and it may have cost the Steelers that game. The Steelers lost by one.

All coaches make mistakes, and every young coach is going to make his fair share of them.  No coach should be judged based on one mistake. 

But, if it starts to become a trend, it becomes a point of concern. 

It has not reached the point of a trend yet, but there is enough evidence for at least some concern.

Tomlin did make a good choice in keeping Dick LeBeau on his staff.  A lesser coach might not have made that decision.

LeBeau may be the best defensive coordinator in the history of the game. He is that good.  He had a huge hand in last year’s success, more than is typical for a coordinator.

But, ironically, it is partially because of the presence of LeBeau that I am not as completely sold on Tomlin as a coaching giant just yet. 

LeBeau is a once in a lifetime coordinator.  Any head coach is going to look a heck of a lot better with LeBeau running the defense.  Just think back to the Bill Cowher years.  Cowher was a completely different coach when he had the luxury of having LeBeau at his side. 

Because of LeBeau and the defense’s prowess last year, the Steelers won a Super Bowl largely in spite of their offense. That is the type of thing you can expect to happen about once every millennium.

The genius of LeBeau may be partially responsible for the Steelers’ loss to the Ravens. It was a potentially LeBeau-inspired defensive scheme by the Ravens, with the defensive lineman dropping into the throwing lane, that resulted in the interception that secured the win.

It brought flashbacks of the call that resulted in the James Harrison interception in last year’s Super Bowl, except my jubilant cheers were replaced with an understated groan. 

Let me end by saying that I’m not anti-Tomlin. I think he is already a good head coach, but so was Jon Gruden.  For that matter, so was Brian Billick.  He may prove to be a superb coach in the long run and I certainly hope that is the case.  I don't think he has met that threshold yet.

This sentiment has nothing to do with this weeks loss.  Losing at Baltimore with a third string quarterback cannot be laid at the feet of the coach. It is a minor miracle that the game was so close with the Steelers almost winning it.  

But, I think it is too early to declare Tomlin the second coming of Vince Lombardi and some of the over the top praise should be dampened.  Tomlin deserves at least some of the criticism that is being reserved exclusively for Arians.  


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