Mike Tomlin Doesn’t Care if You Think his Management Principles are Clichés

Post-Gazette/Andrew Rush photo

 by Adrian Rollett  

It’s been nearly a decade (1) since Mike Tomlin became the head coach of our Pittsburgh Steelers. Since then, nearly everyone in the Steeler blogosphere has made a habit of pointing out various of his pithy sayings, calling them Tomlinisms, or more generally, clichés.

Depending on the standpoint of the individual repeating the phrases, they are used as anything from a signifier of affection all the way down to an indictment of a supposedly vapid person, or at least persona.

After watching the men in black and gold this season and most particularly after the Arizona game, I believe that their meaning has been hiding in plain sight.

I refuse to live in my fears 

I believe Tomlin invests full meaning in the things he says, and more importantly, so do the men who work for him. When I look at the Steelers this year, I see an organization which is committed to winning, top to bottom. They are not only committed to winning, they expect to do so.

This is evident even in Antonio Brown’s “tirade that wasn’t” on the sidelines last Sunday. I haven’t trawled the depths of the internet to confirm this, but I suspect that there is no shortage of shallow thinkers calling him out for a supposed me-first attitude. The fact is, you don’t bother saying anything to the fourth-string (2) quarterback if you’ve decided to mail it in.

And speaking of Mr. Jones—I think we all expected what Troy Aikman did from the booth when Landry Jones came in—three hand-offs and a punt directly to Pittsburgh West, licking its chops in anticipation. According to Dale Lolley, the knock on Jones in practice has been that he likes to throw to the guys in the wrong color shirts just as much as his own team.

However, Tomlin refused to live in his fears, setting Landry loose to play his own game and give the Steelers the best chance to win. Combined with an Arizona defense that looked somewhat as if it had just witnessed the invention of the forward pass (3) and some Martavis Bryant heroics, he carried the day.

Next Man Up 

I would suggest that you read what “Next Man Up” means to Mike Tomlin in his own words, but here’s the heart of what he’s saying:

To discount those backups as anything less but capable, I think you’re selling them short. […] I sell that to the guys. I want them to know that not only do I expect them to excel and play winning football, but they should expect that of themselves.

Here’s another way to say what he’s saying, in my own words this time: Every one of the men that puts on an NFL uniform is supremely talented, and if the game plan doesn’t play to their strengths, that’s on the coaches, not on the men. What I am seeing is that Tomlin has his coaches fully on board with this philosophy.

For my evidence, I submit:

Exhibit A: Defense (from a great article on Keith Butler by Dejan Kovacevic)

Watch the whole (short) interview, but here’s the money quote: “I don’t want to be a guy who interjects myself into the game when they can handle it themselves.”  A lot of coaches will tell you they design game plans to their player’s strengths, but coaches are most lionized for clever designs or their “coaching trees”. Simply as a matter of human nature, most coaches are probably more interested in being known as, say, the inventor of the Air Raid offense than as coaches who coached great players.

Exhibit B: Offense

Go back and watch Landry Jones—in every play, he is looking at only one side of the field. Todd Haley did not say “you’ve been here three years, use Ben’s game plan and good luck to you.” He spent the time to design a game plan to Jones’ strengths, giving him easy reads and recognizing how best to use his abilities.

Now, I won’t say that I’m not a bit scared about next week, assuming he plays. I hope he spends some time practicing at least pretending to look the other way once in a while, or it could be a long game! But with a week to prepare, Haley will have even more time to come up with a plan which gives Jones a chance to succeed.

I believe Mike Tomlin is that rare thing in head coaches and other public personas—someone who says what he believes and believes what he says. Gregg Easterbrook of Tuesday Morning Quarterback recently wrote the following: 

In N.F.L. sociology, players are labor and coaches are management. Network announcers side psychologically with management. The booth guys scoff at dropped passes or missed tackles, criticizing labor, but back up tactical decisions, validating management.

This season the Steelers are providing a nice counterpoint, with management putting labor in a position to succeed. Most importantly, the players are then trusted to do their job and not thrown under the bus if they are unable to execute that particular week. It’s quite refreshing to watch.

  1. yes, really!
  2. behind Roethlisberger, Gradkowski and Vick
  3. to be fair, compared to game planning for Vick, they nearly did!

Obviously, there are a great many more Tomlinisms out there. I would love for the author of this post to explain “thoughtfully non-rhythmic.” I’ve always wondered how that works. But I like the theory…


  • Apparently everyone is stunned by your eloquence, Adrian. Or maybe they are still trying to find the other 10,000 words. But I really do want your take on what “thoughtfully non-rhythmic” means. It sounds so awesome, and is so difficult to actually work out a meaning for. To be fair, though, I suppose that was mediaspeak…


  • I wonder what coach did with his copy? Before I looked at the paper all I could compare the quote to was my writing and dancing skills. I had a funny dream last night. I caught a small fish and let it go but it returned to me and I fed it the rest of the food that I had left. Not throwing the food in the water but hand feeding him as he propped himself up out of the water. The fish was quite happy, he hung around awhile then left. When I woke up this morning I did my normal routine first to ask the Lord to help me do good today and then, when I have time visit “Going Deep”. I read another one of your excellent articles this morning and then ran across this quote from MT. “Sometimes guys throw lines in the water to see if something sticks” Re: Rumor on how long Le’Veon Bell might be out with his foot sprain. From all reports I think Big Ben pulled out his fishing rod this week:)


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  • Very enjoyable article. Like from this Steeler and Tomlin fan.


  • I’m always a few days late on these because I don’t usually break out the home computer until the weekend, but…

    Nice job Adrian, carrying on that Rollett family tradition of very well-written articles that aren’t quite the same as anything you’ll find anywhere else.

    I think the main difference with Tomlin is that he actually believes all those Tomlinisms. A lot of coaches will spout off similar cliches, but Mike Tomlin not only believes them, but he gets his players to believe them as well.


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